Stolen Dignity: Childhood Experiences in an Orphanage

Stephen Ucembe

It is estimated that 30 to 45 percent of the 2.4 million orphans and vulnerable children in Kenya live in children’s homes or orphanages. Most of these institutions are supported by foreigners, many of them well intentioned. However, supporting institutions disrupts the family and community-based child protection systems which are fundamental in ensuring that children have a sense of belonging and receive the love they need for their development. Our efforts should be to keep families together and strengthen a sense of community. We need to be cautious that our actions do not deprive children of their sense of dignity. Having grown up in an “orphanage” in Kenya myself, I would like to share my childhood memories of our visitors and volunteers.

Dressed in a uniform of blue shorts and yellow and blue t-shirts branded with the name of the orphanage, we were gathered under a tree for shade to wait for the visitors. We never called them volunteers then, but visitors. The only thing that we never had were shoes. My feet had gotten used to the rough pebbles underneath. Often, not wearing shoes was to show how impoverished we were, to persuade donors to donate more. The institution staff had taught us a routine. They paraded us, and as soon as the visitors arrived in tour vans we had to exude joy. We jumped up and down, and raptured in unison with song and dance that welcomed them.

Embarrassed and ashamed

We knew that the only way to ensure they came back again to help the institution was by how much they smiled at our entertainment, and by the tears, sadness or sympathy that came when they were told that we were “orphans”. I remember the senior staff on duty standing at the centre of a circle of volunteers pronouncing how some of us had been abandoned by their parents, how others had been picked from the streets and others rejected by families. The majority of us often dropped our heads in shame and embarrassment during these introductions. The term orphan, although sometimes used with good intentions, had become a homogenizing and pathologizing label. It stole away our individuality and dignity.

I felt sad and miserable to have people gawk at me and have cameras flashing at our faces. Most of the volunteers were taken round the institution to see where we slept, where our food was cooked, and told of upcoming projects. Some committed to help, and others gave a one off donation. Some of these encounters were brief, they pulled down their sunglasses, walked back to the vans and from the vehicles they waved us goodbye. At this point some of us had gotten used to their coming and going, but others not - especially the younger ones: tears knocked at their eyelids. They tried not to cry in an environment where crying was almost taboo. This is a practice with visitors had become a routine that made many of us feel even more alienated, isolated, stigmatized, helpless, hopeless, and weak.

Sweet – or not so sweet

There were some volunteers who came and stayed longer. Every morning they showed up to play with some children. Many of us felt they were closer to us as adults than the absent staff. We did indeed cling to their presence like they were never going to leave. But again, they had to leave. All we could do is curl and behave like nothing ever happened, but deep inside they had shattered our trust.

Many had their favourite children - especially the younger ones who got momentary hugs and kisses, and were called “sweet”, “adorable”. On the other hand, those not “adorable” were left alone. It was sad because this fermented envy and resentment amongst older children, and many living with disability who were just to be seen from a distance and unappreciated. There were instances where volunteers became attached to some specific children and they offered to sponsor their education and meet other needs. Again this reinforced the feelings of envy. Some children had parents and relatives but as the volunteers had been told they were orphans, the children were denied an opportunity to visit their parents to maintain this lie.

Like a caged animal

Occasionally, well-wishers would fund a trip for us to visit local animal orphanages. These were often the only moments we could see beyond the walls of the institution. After each visit, I wondered how I had also been reduced to the level of a caged animal. I liked the fact that volunteers came and brought candies and toys, clothes and food. But I never liked the constant thought and feeling of being reduced to an animal caged in a zoo. Yet, it was a constant reality for almost 14 years of my childhood.

Stephen Ucembe founded the Kenya Society of Care Leavers in 2009 and now works with Hope and Homes for Children as a Regional Advocacy Manager. A longer version of this article was written as a contribution to a blogging campaign against international volunteering in orphanages coordinated by “Better Volunteering Better Care”.

Further information:

Better Volunteering Better Care:

Avaaz petition calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites:, #StopOrphanTrips

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