“Many orphanages are like a business. The business owners run the orphanage. The product is the children. The customers are foreign guests.” –Voice 1
Note From Steph: There are a lot of great articles on the internet right now shining light on the dangers of “orphanage tourism”. I recently re-read several powerful articles and then decided to continue reading into the comment section. I was astonished at the anger and push-back from so many. What interested me even more was people’s passionate defense of their own experiences in orphanages. The focus of “self” in the orphanage experience was troubling, but what concerned me more was that we are all doing a lot of talking on the orphaned child’s behalf. I was surprised at all the statements being made “for the children”; as if us former volunteers/guests have any right to speak for how the they actually feel. I realized that there are many heated discussions going on about these children; a lot of assumptions being made about what they need, how they feel, how they have been affected…but no one is asking them.
I would also like to note that there are very good children’s homes out there who aim to protect children and who place healthier boundaries on guests. Our youngest son was adopted from one just like that, Forever Angels. We are thankful for their wonderful care for his first years of life and their work in rescuing babies, providing interim care and promoting family reunification.
This is only Part 1 of this discussion. There are more. Those who have survived “orphanage tourism” have much more to say to us about it. Please be open to learning from these young adults. It may hurt. I, myself, have made many of the mistakes that they are bringing to light. Take care that we don’t defend our actions or other’s actions before taking time to listen to a perspective that far outweighs any of our own opinions. We have never lived it. They have. We must listen.
Below is an interview of three adults who spent their entire childhood and teenage years inside orphanages in two different developing countries.
I have done my very best not to ask leading questions because I know two things are sure:
1. People are easily persuaded to answer in ways that will make the questioner happy.
2. Any input or swaying that I do will only detract from the powerful nature of what they are coming forward to say. I have nothing to offer other than asking questions and listening (which is what we all should be doing anyway).
From here, I will turn it over to my dear friend, Eugene Mwea. Eugene is a master at “speaking the truth (even difficult truth ) in love”. He’s been a genuine friend whose wounds of honesty have helped me more than he will ever know, though I tell him often. Thank you, Eugene, for being a true friend, for being faithful to the Lord through life’s many challenges, and thank you for your willingness to share your experiences with us. We look forward to hearing much more from you!
*Two of the interviewees would like to remain anonymous for their privacy and protection of others. We will refer to them as *voice 1, voice 2 (which had been translated from Swahili into English). Eugene Mwea has also written his own answers as well as added some of his own story following.
Take it away, Eugene.
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Question: What do you think about volunteers in orphanages?
Eugene: I struggled with some (not all) volunteers who came for a day or a few weeks and left and you never heard a thing from them ever again, I felt like they were out to fulfil an inner desire and longing in their hearts rather than serve me and my friends. I had no problems with some of them who came and kept in contact sending cards and calling a few times after that, showing that they cared! My issue was mostly with those that “disappeared”!
Voice 2: We would be prepped before the guests came in to act a certain way. I would always have the job of holding up the sick ones, so the guests could see and feel sorry for them and give money. We were forced to smile and sing and act a certain way so that the guests would be touched. We also paraded around the children with disabilities around. One of the younger boys had his surgery “paid for” several times per year. They never gave him the surgery because he would draw in new groups to pay…over and over and over again. The volunteers had hearts to give but did not understand the culture that they were visiting nor did they take time to really understand what would help most nor did they have the ability to follow up on where that “aid” was actually going.
Voice 1: I think they are great. There were a group of local men who used to come to us every Saturday. They would spend hours cutting the grass and cleaning the compound. Afterwards they would always break us up into small groups. Each man had a small group of children that he would spend the afternoon with once his work was done. We loved that. We loved them. They came every week and felt like family.
Follow up: Actually, I meant foreign volunteers…what do you think about foreign volunteers?
I’m sorry, I didn’t understand your question. You mean guests? Those are guests, not usually volunteers. There are many different kinds of guests, in my experience, but most of them should never come.
What kind of visitors are good?
Voice 1: The only visitors that were ever good for us were the ones who were in our lives consistently. If people lived near us and were able to visit often then we felt a connection and could have a level of attachment towards them that wasn’t broken after a short visit. Also, there were local people who would come in and bring bags of food and needs to the orphanage. That was good and they spent most of their time talking with the leadership of the orphanage. I never remember them taking our pictures or making us feel bad when they came. We also never had to “perform for those guests”. I always wondered what the foreign guests are using all those videos and pictures for? I think maybe they sell them to get their own money by using our sad condition. Maybe they use them to pay for their trip?
Voice 2: The only good guests are people who were there constantly. Most of the time, they never wanted to take our pictures or overindulge us with gifts.
The worst are the short visits from people who just come in and out for a day or two for an even quicker “visit” and photo opportunity. The next are the ones who come for a longer time or even a couple months and build a connection with us and then leave. Then there are guests that return every year or every several months for trips…and even those hurt us. They would come and leave just like all the others. One visit every year doesn’t build a bond it just builds and rebreaks trust in us. I learned not to depend on people’s presence in my life because of this.
Eugene: Those that keep in touch and treat you like a fellow “human being”. Not those that come take pictures of you and make you feel like you are either very different from them or disadvantaged! How would you feel if someone came to your home, played with you, talked about you (in your presence) and then left never to say a thing ever again? (Same feeling here).
How did you feel getting gifts?
Voice 1: All kids like gifts. Now that I look back though I can see that it wounded the women who were working in the orphanage day after day and didn’t have the ability to buy us anything.
Voice 2: Much of what is brought to the orphanage is taken away from the children right after the visitors leave. It is often sold and we never saw it again. I hated receiving gifts while getting my picture taken. “Look over here”, *snap goes a camera. “Come stand next to this”, *snap goes another camera. “Hold the toys”, *snap goes another camera.
Eugene: Children love gifts… I generally loved gifts, especially those that I could understand and keep! (Books, simple toys, puzzles, etc.) I wouldn’t speak for all the kids living in orphanages (because as you will come to understand, they are very different depending on their different situations). I did not like fancy toys that I did not know how to use because it mostly reminded me that I could not afford them and secondly, I did not like them because we had a patron that would confiscate them for crazy reasons and take them to his kids! Of all the gifts, I loved ready food that I could eat immediately (That’s just me!)
What do you think about the word orphan?
Eugene: I don’t like it.
Voice 1: I hate that word. Ever since I was a child it hurt me to be called an orphan. It was like we weren’t regular children and people who called us orphans looked at us differently than they did other kids.
Voice 2: The foreign guests always thought that we didn’t know what the word “orphan” meant because we only spoke Swahili. We knew exactly what it meant. We knew what they were doing as their video cameras would pan the crowd of all of us children. We knew what they were saying, “and here are all the orphans”. We smiled and waved and indulged them because we had to but inside it hurt. I learned to use to get from people. I could make visitors fall in love with me. The orphanage workers used that to have multiple people “paying my school fees” at the same time. I used it to get extra candy or money for soda.
What should you call an orphaned child if not an orphan?
Voice 1: You should call them a child. Please stop ostracizing and labeling children in this way. They are children…call them that.
Eugene: How about their real names…!?!?!
So, if people have a heart to help orphaned children but they don’t want to make these mistakes, what can they do?
Voice 1: The best thing that ever happened to us was that one of the local mamas who took care of us was trained by healthcare workers and psychologists. She was different from everyone else. People invested in her and in turn she invested in us. She cared for us and loved us differently than anyone else. The best thing that foreigners can do is invest in training the ones who are there every day and night taking care of the children. Don’t come in “and love on them” and make the locals feel inadequate. That only makes them lose hope and feel discouraged and incapable. I remember that many of the mamas were jealous that guests could come in with energy and toys and candy when they couldn’t. I remember that the local mamas were the ones who were left with our tears, confusion, and attachment issues once the guests had left. That’s not fair. If you really want to help orphaned children then don’t visit them, instead visit and invest in those who are caring for them. Many orphanages are like a business. The business owners run the orphanage. The product is the children. The customers are the foreign guests.
- First of all, pray for yourself (don’t trust me on this, trust God!), pray that you be a positive impact on a kid’s life and not leave them missing you but rather leave them wanting to know more about the Jesus you portrayed during your visit.
- Stay in contact with the kids, some orphanages won’t allow it, at least try! For orphanages that allow it, try and be a pen-pal to the kid(s) and if you do not hear back, don’t stop, sometimes the letters never get to the kids (I am a witness to that) and sometimes the kids just don’t know how to or what to write. If you keep writing, even once a year, you will get a reply one day.
- Be real, orphans have seen so many guests that they can smell a fake from a long distance! Do not make promises that you do not intend to keep… The kid will remember!
Written by Eugene:
Growing up is fun, right!? Yes! As a kid you have fun despite any challenges that come across your path, you will always find a way to make the best out of it and still have fun! Growing up as an orphan in an orphanage was one of those things that had its fun and also its “not very” fun times. I can say a lot about my experiences at my orphanage but one of the things that I totally disliked (hated) was watching “white” people (hope that doesn’t sound racist) come visit our orphanage.
So, this is how it would go down! You would be woken up in the morning (usually Saturdays for us! The day you want to sleep more!), told or sometimes forced to take showers, dressed in your best clothes (depending on the guests), sometimes your second-best clothes (to try and attract some more money for the orphanage) then breakfast. They mostly showed up mid-morning with toys (that we did not know how to use), took pictures (A LOT of pictures) with us, “tried” to play with us while all this time, all you are hoping is for them to leave so you could dress in your comfortable clothes and go have some real fun! Then they would give gifts (that we knew we would probably never come across again) and then THEY WOULD LEAVE!
Each kid received these guests differently, I did not like them! Not that I had/have anything against someone from a different culture, no, but it’s just that they made me feel uncomfortable about my situation, culture, way of life, etc. Also, the guests would cry more than us! or have teary eyes most of the time or even ask insensitive questions about you right in-front of you! I remember one who asked my Dorm Patron (The guy who was in-charge of my dorm)… “You said this kid’s mother died? What happened to his dad?” I looked at that lady and walked away, which got me in trouble when they left, but as a kid, I thought she was being mean!\
The sad part was standing at the gate to wave them goodbye, I hated this part because, I was required to stand there and wave goodbye to people I knew would never (most probably never) come back!
Looking back now, I am honoured that I went through such experiences because above all they have given me an inner desire to respect God and everyone that I come across in my life! The experiences have made me want to be a better father, husband, man and just more sensitive to different people and their situations despite their backgrounds and cultures. I hope to establish an orphanage in future and I pray that I treat the kids in that orphanage with the love of Christ and train them to think more about Christ’s love for them and to think about each other more than themselves.
“The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” – Billy Graham
*Want to hear more from Eugene and the other voices? Feel free to ask any questions in the comment section below this article and we will do our best to answer.