Uganda adores it’s children in a collective sense but ignores them on an individual level.  Beating children is common practice as is pawning them off on grandmothers, aunts, or other family members (to live, not just for the afternoon).  As a woman, you’re nobody unless you’ve had children and the more you have the better, but mothers love their children much differently here.  One reason they have so many is because they expect a few to die.  One woman told me “I’ll just have another one” after her second born, a four year old, died of an unknown cause. She loved having children but the loss of that one didn’t slow her down.

I went with Natalie recently to “M” after hearing her stories from that place which broke me in two.  I went to see it for myself and if it’s possible to be thoroughly defeated by one look on a place or person, I’m sure it happened to me yesterday.

The Ugandan government created this facility for “stubborn” children- street beggars, disobedient kids, unwanted orphans, handicapped and mentally disabled kids, etc.  One child I met was dropped off at there at ten days old by her fourteen year old mother.  I do not know how she survived for three years in that hellish place but she bounced around and played as if it were a funhouse.  Another was left there by his grandmother for not doing his chores – he tried to hang himself during his first week and he’s only eleven years old.  One boy was crippled and blind because his grandmother poured acid in his eyes and broke his leg so he would bring more money while begging.

There was another who couldn’t walk right and had a mental deficit of some sort and I found out he was ten years old when his parents were told by a witch doctor that they could acquire wealth by sacrificing their son.  They paid him to kill the boy by bludgeoning him to death but he failed and the boy escaped, but not without suffering permanent brain damage and losing a lot of function in his legs.  The police pulled him off the streets and dumped him here.

The next picture is of some of the smaller boys drinking the milk we brought for them.  That box of milk and one bowl of grey, watery soup was all they got for the day.  Does it stand out to you how bright and shiny those milk boxes are?  It’s because the kids were so dingy and filthy in comparison.  You wouldn’t normally think a commonplace box of milk would stand out like it does in that picture, would you?

Unwanted girls don’t often make it to this place because they can be sold into prostitution so of the 250 kids there, probably 200+ were boys.   Of those 200 boys, about 50 weren’t wearing clothes.  Most of them sleep together on either the floor or on the few bunks but a few unlucky ones are put in special cells.  Exceptionally stubborn kids are locked into a urine soaked room of about six square feet- they are naked, given no bedding, no food, and no contact for “as long as it takes” before the social workers feel they can be trusted on their own.

I asked if anyone was in a room that had no padlock on it and the social worker said no so I peeped  inside.  A starving little naked kid was in there looking back at me!  I smiled and asked his name -Tom- and then looked accusingly at the social worker who knew he’d been caught.  Before we came I was warned not to stir up trouble because If Natalie loses her access to these kids then who would advocate for them?  So I knew I’d earned some freedom to give Tom the only thing I had on me, a granola bar, without getting in trouble and he inhaled it in seconds like a wild animal.

I asked Natalie how she got involved with this place and she said she passed the sign for it one day while driving out of town.  It’s a haggard, hand painted sign that says only “‘M’: Rehabilitation Center for Children” on it and she intuitively knew that didn’t sound good so she drove right up to the compound and snooped around.  Now here is where you will stop believing me if you haven’t already- she could not find a single adult on the property and what she found instead were rooms of naked children locked up with some of them chained to the window bars.  After a billion frantic phone calls, she learned the place was supposed to be government funded but paychecks were never issued.  The headmaster and house mother were not about to work for free so they began locking the children up during the afternoon and night and letting them out once a day to feed them if they had anything at all.  Two hundred children locked up and starving with no supervision is what she saw that day.

Fast forward two years to yesterday when she took me on a tour of the facility she has managed to improve to at least a place where the children get occasional meals and a few stitches of clothing.  She’s gotten one girl into permanent boarding school because the headmaster didn’t want an HIV+ girl to deal with and she’s enrolled another twenty or so in day school in the local village.  She brings clothes and food on each visit and she’s been working tirelessly to raise awareness for their situation.

Recently they suffered a measles outbreak and the headmaster brought in a witch doctor who made multiple slices in each kid’s leg with a razor blade, that was his treatment.  Since the kids have no toilets and no parents to teach them any different, they live bathed in their own urine and feces so naturally all their little legs were infected within days.  This is the kind of thing Natalie’s up against.

This was the meal for the day.  I don’t even know what they used to make this soup but you can tell it’s basically 99% water.  It’s because of Natalie they even have bowls to eat from.  Before she found them they were throwing the food on the floor of that building and letting the kids fight over it on their hands and knees.

Below is one of two rooms with beds.  There were about 50 beds so even though they double up, that’s only 100 out of 250 kids sleeping in a bed at night.

“They use their mattresses”.  It’s what they told me when I asked where they urinate at night.  I had noticed the doors had padlocks on them and I already knew there were no toilets.  This room smelled so strong of ammonia that my eyes watered.

Below is a group of new kids that arrived just before we did.  It was raining and chilly yesterday so they were all wet and shivering.  Below that is a motherless kid they found walking the streets.  His hair is red  because he’s malnourished and his face, mouth, hands and shirt were covered in yellow snot.   The third picture is of a little tribal boy, naked except for his beads, who was getting kicked around by the older boys.  I don’t know his story or how long he’d been there but he was my daughter Ellis’ age but he looked dead inside.  He didn’t respond to anything, not even the boxes of milk we passed out.  I picked him up and he was limp and stared right through me.

If you want to know how you can help these poor souls, I’ll tell you frankly the best way is with money.  The most effective thing we can do for them is buy them local food and pay their school fees.  School is neither good nor free in this country but Natalie pays for a few kids to attend the local school when she can.

Do pray fervently for my little friends in “M”.

– Betsy