A Kenyan girl sits with her baby doll in hand, smile on her face, changing the doll’s clothes and doing its hair. Minutes later, she places the baby doll into the arms of another child – with no protests of possession, no sense of selfishness.
Faith-based organizations working in Africa are turning to the unselfish arms of family as an alternative to orphanages, believing families offer a more effective way to aid the millions of orphans on the continent who have lost parents to AIDS and other deadly fates.
Baylor University professor Jon Singletary recently led a team of students who traveled to Kenya on a “mission of learning” to see the difference these families are making.
“What children need is genuine family, not made-up families,” Singletary, who teaches in Baylor’s School of Social Work, said. “With almost 150 million kids (worldwide) classified as orphans – meaning they’ve lost one or both parents – the most common response is, if you see an orphan, then you assume that child needs an orphanage.”
“Orphanages are really, tragically outdated,” he added. “The more natural model throughout Africa is what we call ‘kinship care.’ It’s foster care by families. Families taking on nephews and nieces, or grandchildren, or brothers and sisters.”
Since 2002, the Texas-based Baptist charity Buckner International has worked in Kenya to place 150 orphans into kinship-care homes.
A dozen students joined Singletary in visiting homes in Nairobi and the agricultural town of Kitale to learn how men and women were opening their arms to motherless and fatherless young ones.
“It is not uncommon in this culture for a young child to be cared for by a grandmother or auntie if their biological parents perished because of AIDS or other calamities,” said Phil Brinkmeyer, regional director for Buckner Kenya. “Kinship care helps provide extra assistance to the extended family to care for a relative’s child.”
In 2006 (the latest year for which statistics are available), the United Nations estimated there were 2.3 million orphans in Kenya alone, due to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Kinship care is helping with the overwhelming need.
One foster father in his 50s wanted his niece, who lost her parents, to have a stable home. So he built a new one, brick by brick. “He felt like the mud house that they had wasn’t what he wanted to raise his new family in,” Singletary said.
While creating a welcoming home for his expanded family, the man continued to maintain a farm. “His family had been on this farm for two or three generations,” Singletary said, “and (he) saw (his niece) as the next generation. This was a daughter he didn’t anticipate having. So, when her parents died of HIV, he wanted to make that kind of difference for her.”
Partnering with kinship-care families
Buckner and similar groups partner with Africans, using the kinship model by providing new parents with food supplements, school fees and health care.
Some of the recipients have displayed an entrepreneurial spirit. Ann, a foster mother in Kitale, convinced her fellow villagers to use some of the money Buckner was giving them for food supplements to create what they called a “merry-go-round.”
“She suggested taking some of the money they were spending on food, and let the villagers pool it together,” Singletary said. “Each month a different family can have that to start a small business or strengthen the business they already have.”
Ann converted one of her huts into a mushroom farm where she could grow food to sell. Another portion of her merry-go-round money went to making liquid soap that offers valuable antibacterial properties hard to come by in rural Kenya.
“She’s caring for these children, but she’s this entrepreneur who’s able to inspire several other families that she’s working with. She’s just a foster mom, but she’s so much more than that. She truly is a leader,” Singletary said.
A mission to learn
The School of Social Work has offered this mission trip opportunity to Baylor students since 2005, as a way to learn from people like Ann.
“We go as God’s ears,” Singletary said, “to hear what Christians in Africa are able to do through the ways that God has empowered them, gifted them. And we come back with a message to share of what we’ve learned over there, rather than going over there to share a message.”
A need for faith was one of the lessons learned by Sara Elliot, a social-work graduate student from Tennessee.
“Just to see the joy and contentment they had in life made you re-evaluate yourself and how you get so upset over a flat tire or whatever,” Elliot said. “It just made you think about how thankful you should be. Their faith was just unreal because that’s all they had to cling to. They had nothing else. Seeing their faith was definitely a refreshing experience.”
The simple lives of the Kenyan orphans also had an impact on Sarah Stoner, a social work student from Waco, Texas.
“They’re just so happy for everything they have,” she said, “even though it is so much less than most American children enjoy.” Stoner hopes to return to Africa to work alongside kinship-care families.
“They have so much I can learn from,” she said.
Singletary hopes further mission trips, along with an ongoing relationship with Buckner’s Kenya ministries, will increase American Christians’ knowledge of how the open-armed approach to orphan care can, over time, improve the quality of life for younger generations in crisis.
Kristine Davis, a first-year journalism graduate student at Baylor University, is a summer intern for Associated Baptist Press.