I Have Seen the Future in East Africa

In November 2005 I wrote an article for Children Webmag with the title, What to Do with 24 Million Orphans. (You can read it online by clicking on Archive/Keith J. White and scrolling down; it is also available in the book Reflections on Living with Children whose details are displayed alongside this column.) Given the huge numbers of orphan children in Africa I tried to get my head around what an informed, practical and principled approach or model would look like.Putting aside doctrinaire policies such as “fostering and adoption for all”, “close all residential units”, or “family support and community-based solutions are the answer” I inched towards the conclusion that lies at the heart of my book, The Growth of Love. It assumes that parenting is the responsibility of the whole neighbourhood or community that makes up the social context of a child’s life: family, friends, neighbours, teachers, health workers, religious communities and so on. In essence there would be a variety of interlocking resources that were mutually reinforcing: networks of care and support. The catch phrase that comes to mind is, “It takes a village to parent”.

Having just spent two weeks with my wife Ruth in Uganda and Kenya, and having listened to many concerned adults, and children themselves, I am in no doubt about the scale of the problems. It is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the numbers of needy children, the intensity of the problems they face in the struggle for survival (let alone sustenance, growth and learning!), and the intractable nature of the structural factors that combine with relentless pressure to bring endless streams of children into the same bleak and seemingly hopeless situations. The need was ever before us, and all around us.

So why am I hopeful in the longer term, if not for all of the individual children I met? The reason is that the agencies we got to know both in Uganda and Kenya are working with the sort of model that makes long term sense. Let me mention three examples: Dwelling Places, Cornerstone, and Africa Children’s Mission. Each has a different focus and base, but between them there is much shared philosophy and practical experience informed by wisdom and knowledge.

Dwelling Places provides accommodation and care for street children in Kampala: the premises are basic by European standards, but exceptionally good when compared with the poor families living locally. Education is built into the very fabric of daily life, and this is a rounded, relevant learning. At the same time everything is done with a view to discovering family and kinship networks so that children will have a sense of belonging and identity, as well as a reliable support base in their lives. Genuine social work (as we used to understand it in the UK) is going on with each child and family, careful to protect and safeguard the children, while at the same time seeking long-term solutions that do justice to their culture, traditions and relationships.

Given the scourge of youth unemployment (in East Africa, as around the world) the project is inherently forward-looking. It has established a venture that will in time provide employment and training for young people who have been helped as children: the premises include a restaurant, art workshop, shop, cinema and internet café. It will be a hub for the neighbourhood, resourced and staffed by the young people themselves.

In short everything is characterised by community development: an approach that sees the main resources lying within each child, young person, their networks and the local communities. Rather than victims or recipients of care, the children and young people are encouraged to see themselves as agents of their own lives and destinies.

Cornerstone owns a ranch and residential schools north of Kampala, and it has a clear vision and philosophy: to train future leaders (in every area of life) with patriotic and Christian values, supported by a growing community of alumni who support, mentor, befriend and where necessary challenge one another. The children are drawn mostly from poor families and villages, and from different regions (tribes) in Uganda. Every attempt is made to create an inclusive, committed, vibrant learning community. The sale of milk from 500 cows on the ranch contributes to the sustainability of the whole venture, and there are careful and numerous links with local people and communities. Whole areas, not just the children themselves, benefit from the initiative. It is set up for the long term.

Already there are members of parliament in Uganda who have gone through the programme, and I was impressed to see the ways in which these individuals are supported by their Cornerstone colleagues. You would be hard pressed to describe what happens if you were restricted to existing English terms and concepts (such as home, school, counselling, fostering etc) because the whole approach is about learning, parenting, community, networking adapted and applied practically in a range of different contexts.

Africa Children’s Mission is partly based on Cornerstone land. It is a community development initiative that provides meals for hundreds of children, accommodation and care, dental and medical care for villages in the bush, and in conjunction with Cornerstone it links children with appropriate education and training. Houses and wells have been constructed by local people with the assistance of organisations such as Habitat.

I am acutely aware that my descriptions will hardly help those unacquainted with East Africa to imagine what this all looks like on the ground: after all, I couldn’t get my head around it despite all I had heard over several years until I saw it for myself.

Perhaps you will be inspired to take a look for yourself. What you will find are committed, informed, professionally trained people involved in creating long-term networks of care and support using all the resources at their disposal. These resources draw in part from overseas and local giving, but by far the greatest resource is the vision that the primary wells of living water are not in other places or countries, but springing up within the children, families and local communities.

If you are to understand this approach you will need to discard your existing categories of European social work, welfare and education in order to discover new possibilities emerging in practice based on the rich wisdom of those who have sought to base responses to the needs of children on the best available theory and research about how children find opportunities for shelter, nurture and learning within families and communities that are strengthened and empowered.

All this gives cause to hope, despite the inexorable forces that combine to guarantee that the need is likely to be with us for generations to come.

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