Orphan for Life



Without a doubt, meeting our brothers and sisters in Africa was a life-changing experience for all us Wofford Americans who had the great fortunate to participate in this unique learning opportunity in January of 2012. For many of us, time spent with the orphans at the Fairfield Orphanage on Old Mutare, Zimbabwe was especially meaningful. Since many of us were deeply moved by that experience, I want to share some more information about orphans in Zimbabwe.

Ms. Petra Krumpen, one of my colleagues here at Africa University in the Faculty of Health Sciences, has written a research paper on the transition of girls who were abandoned by their parents, were raised in an orphanage, and then had to leave the orphanage at age 18, ready or not. Her research shows that these girls/women do not transition well into the community in part because they don't have a birth certificate, and without a birth certificate, one cannot sit for the examinations that must be taken to earn school credit. Furthermore, just to sit for an exam costs money and these orphan children have absolutely no source of income other than that provided by well-wishers from abroad or from the government which is operating on a very slim budget. Americans are accustomed to paying to take exams like the SAT but we find it strange that to earn credit for public school courses we'd have to pay to take the exams, yet that is the long-standing procedure in Zimbabwe.

One of the recommendations that came from Ms. Krumpen's research is that prior to leaving the orphanage (where some have spent their entire life) girls need counseling on how to integrate into society. However, there is no money to hire counselors. It gets worse: In Shona culture, everybody has an affiliation with a family. Each family has a totem (such as an elephant, lion, buffalo, etc.) and it is absolutely forbidden that a man marry a woman who has the same totem. This isn't usually a problem and, as a geneticist would quickly realize, this ancient prohibition of inbreeding minimizes the likelihood of birth defects. But an orphan may not have a family affiliation and therefore has no totem. In Shona culture, a man would not risk marrying a woman whose totem is unknown because of the possibility of marrying a relative. Though hard to fathom, this tradition, though diminishing of late, remains important among the poor people of Zimbabwe, that is the very people who are most likely to have produced an orphan in the first place because the parents simply cannot afford to take care of a child or the parent(s) died from HIV/AIDS.

Most orphans have no birth certificate, no parents or known relatives and no totem. For young women who leave the orphanage, there is no one to whom the prospective husband can pay the lobola (the bride price.) Yes, I know this is baffling, but in Zimbabwe even among the most educated and affluent, the paying of a bride price is an absolutely indispensible tradition. (In the spring of 2012, the current Prime Minister of Zimbabwe paid lobola for the woman he was about to marry!) In my thrifty American way of thinking, getting a bride without having to pay would seem to be most desirable, but in Zimbabwe this firmly-entrenched custom is to pay the lobola to the bride's parent, whether it is two cows for an uneducated bride or thousands of dollars in cash and gifts for a highly educated woman. This is true even among Christians (most Zimbabweans are Christians) and even if it presents such a financial burden that the wedding has to be delayed indefinitely since weddings are expensive but marriage ceremonies are not.

Another thing about these orphans.... since many arrive as infants or children who are unnamed, they are given names by well-meaning persons who operate the orphanages. Very commonly they are given the last name "Wedu" which in Shona means "ours." This seems endearing until one realizes that once they leave the orphanage, that name immediately labels them as an orphan, a person without a birth certificate, no family connection or totem, no certificates as proof of an education, and probably a very bleak future as a domestic worker or, for the women, life as a prostitute.

One last surprising fact regarding orphans: unlike the poor people in the rural areas who struggle to pay school fees and buy school uniforms so their children can attend public schools, orphans in orphanages attend school, are provided uniforms, and eat 2-3 meals a day. Breakfast is a porridge made from ground maize (corn) and lunch and dinner consists of sadza (a thick paste made from ground maize) and vegetables, beans and occasionally some chicken. Believe it or not, this limited but reliable diet and access to schools makes life in an orphanage a bit easier than it is for those children who live with parents in the rural areas. Yet again, when leaving the orphanage, orphans commonly find the transition to life "outside" even more challenging because orphans are accustomed to a standard of living that paradoxically may be higher than that of the community into which they attempt to assimilate.

In summarizing Ms. Krumpen's research it should be clear that orphans have very special needs and challenges, especially when they have to leave the only "home" and "family" they may have ever known.
When we think of all the smiles and hugs and tender moments we enjoyed with the young orphans at Fairfield Children's Home we should remember that a happy ending is not assured for each of those little ones that we found so charming. And we should realize that these sweet children will one day become teenagers with some of those characteristics that make teenagers difficult to love and manage.

What are we to do with this information? How should we respond? Indeed, such questions were ever-present as we encountered our brothers and sisters in Africa. Who knows how each of us will react to what we've seen and experienced? I can tell you this: Not only does Ms. Krumpen care enough about orphans to conduct research on the topic, she acts on the issue. Currently she is a foster mother to five (that's right, FIVE) black Zimbabwean boys ranging in age from 14-23! Ms. Krumpen is a single white woman, 53 years old, from Germany who has been teaching in the nursing program at AU for the last eight years and whose salary is paid by the United Methodist Church of Germany.

Ms. Krumpen has several friends who are very committed to providing foster care for adolescent orphans. The group has created Kuyaruka Trust to accept and dispense donations to support these orphans and the foster families who take them in. In addition, Kuyaruka Trust is expanding to assist with the payment of school fees for needy families. You can support Kuyaruka Trust with a tax-deductible donation through Drops In Buckets.


GR Davis
1 March 2012


More photos by GR Davis