June 10, 2021

What it’s like to Grow Up in an Orphanage.

From Orphanage to the World: With Wonder, Fear & Curiosity

My journey began on a traumatic note.

I was found while breast feeding my dead mum.

I can only imagine the struggle of getting me off her breast.

This’s how little me ended up in an orphanage. The presence of the orphanage provided a quick and probably the easiest solution. Family tracing was not given a chance.

There’s something fundamental about a child being taken care of individually that I missed. The collective care at the orphanage did me no good. The minimal contact offered at the orphanage is a no-brainer as to the repercussions I suffered. I needed much more than the material provisions.

Normal life henceforth did not exist.

I have zero recollection of my infancy; my recollection begins with me joining school. I dare say, the four walls and the magnificent gate guarding the orphans were not only physical, but were cognitively, emotionally, and physically present. I thought, behaved, dressed, and talked in a certain way that brought out the presence of this seclusion.

Walking out of this gate to join school was heavenly. I was filled with wonder, fear, and curiosity as I discovered different things. The exposure to the world began.

My school life exposed me to the family unit. I learnt there were kids who lived in homes where children had their bedrooms and parents had theirs, while some siblings shared the bed. The parents had different roles depending on the child’s needs. This is how I got introduced to the “family unit.” A thing I so much admired and longed for but could never get it.

Whenever I tried to be part of one, I was reminded I had to go back to the orphanage. Little did I know there was a procedure to make me part of their family, a procedure that I later learnt was called adoption. I tried to get adopted at 21 years old, but this failed. The adoption agency said I was overage. Yes, I was over age but I still needed a family and to belong.

In class, too, I had a lot to come to terms with. For instance, when it came to the science class, I was the only one who did not understand of a lot of stuff. When we were taught about cash crops, my classmates seemed to already know about these crops. On the contrary, by then, I had not seen these crops on a farm.

I recall asking my classmates to bring me coffee berries, sweet potatoes, yam, and other items that we had learnt about. It took several years for me to understand how a mud hut/house would not be destroyed by rains.

A traditional pot was unfamiliar and so were the domestic animals. When I saw a real cow, goat, and sheep for the first time, I got fascinated and frightened. I thought they were capable of harming someone. Then I saw a cow being milked and wondered why it did not kick the milk nor the person milking it.

The rainy seasons did not mean much, for I led an auto life with no interpretation of why and when it rained. In fact, when it rained, we’d go out to play, and it was fun as the rain fell on us.

I faced life with so much wonder and reservation at the same time. I was afraid to explore unfamiliar territories and activities. When I came across these unfamiliar paths, I would ward off or block it in my mind. Scared of what I did not know. Crowds were not a thing I fancied; if in a place with many people, I’d lock myself in a room or sit with a book as if to say “do not talk to me.”

In books, I found the best company. The crowds overwhelmed me, and I disassociated as soon as I ended up in one. I would be the unknown guest and would leave as soon as I could without even mentioning my presence to the host.

How did I transition from being so vulnerable to who I am today?

Time passed, and I began to realise my loner tendencies were unusual. During my work leave days, I would find myself in a retreat centre for the whole time, only to report back to work without going anywhere else. My life rotated between work, my house, church, and retreat centres.

It was while I was questioning this trend that I came across a recorded talk that brought meaning to the African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

This for some reason triggered some strange thoughts and kept me wondering why I couldn’t let go. I reflected on my life and realised how closed up I had been and what this had led me to become. I had become an island. I lived in my own world. It became the aha moment for me.

With this, it led me to research more on the speaker. I learnt he held monthly meetings within the city. I called and inquired where, when, what time, and how much the monthly talks were.

With my usual fright of unfamiliar things, I attended the first talk. I was so moved that the fear melted away, and after this meeting, I made advance payment for the whole year. I had found knowledge that I had not read in books. It is these monthly talks that started off my journey of getting out of the cocoon I lived in.

The talks were diversified covering topics like personality, self-awareness, mental health, self-image, finances, networking, and a lot more that encompassed the well-being and growth of a holistic person.

Within a year of joining this group, I began to make meaningful friendships, leadership skills emerged, my self-esteem shot up—my confidence scared me.

I decided to further my studies; I started speaking up; my dressing changed to reveal my beautiful curves; I become conscious about what I ate; I began to intentionally create time for exercise; I choose who to let into my circle and who not to; I become conscious of my well-being; I wore makeup; I wore jewelry; I wore heels (and the most amazing ones); I learnt to say no; I became adventurous, warm, and friendly.

This is when I made the decision to always wear a smile and maintain a joyous aura irrespective of what was happening around me.

I realized how I had downplayed my potential for so long.

The outcome of this transformation became exciting and life changing. I became authentic, and I began to thrive. I realized what growing up in an orphanage had done to me.

I found myself and was no longer the vulnerable girl who was in the orphanage. I overcame the orphanage stigma.

This is what I say in conclusion and for the sake of creating awareness.

>> Traditionally, protection and care of children was reserved for the family. Orphanages do meet the material needs but are unable to replace parental care, love, and belonging.

>> No matter how nice an orphanage is, it still remains an orphanage.

While I am forever grateful for what I received from the good orphanage, I lacked the things that were fundamental to my wholeness. When all is going well, it is easy to maneuver; however, when in need or unwell, the reality checks in.

I am happy that today the alternative care options have become a global knowledge and are getting embraced. Unfortunately, the uptake is so slow, and what is even more disturbing is the mushrooming of new orphanages, many of them differentiating themselves as being “good orphanages.”

We do not need better nor more orphanages. We need better family and community-based systems, which are far better for both children and societies.

The good intentions of orphanages are outweighed by the disadvantages endured by these children both in childhood and adulthood when our good intentions are long gone.

To conclude, I share a few nuggets that are key to the way forward.

>> Children want to belong, to be loved, and cared for individually.

>> Orphanages harm the children they intend to save/help.

>> Children in orphanages are detached from their families and communities.

>> In comparison to children in family settings, children in orphanages are more predisposed to abuse, neglect, and harm, which many times go unnoticed, or little is done about it, especially if the perpetrators are influential in the orphanage or society.

>> Children who grow up in orphanages have higher rates of being homeless, suicidal, and getting into prostitution and crime.

>> Orphanage upbringing negatively impacts children’s psychosocial, emotional, cognitive, and sometimes, physical development both in childhood and adulthood.

>> Children in orphanages are deprived of better care and protection.

>> Children in orphanages are stigmatized by the label “orphan.”

>> Infants who grow up in orphanages have poorer growth and development compared to mothered infants.

>> Every child has a right to parental care.

>> What would we want for our children if we were not able to be there for them?

Let us not construct better orphanages or more orphanages; instead, let’s direct our donations, good will, and resources toward strengthening, enabling, and empowering both families and communities to be self-reliant.

By spending our donations, good will, and resources on orphanages, it leads to lack of resources to develop family-based alternatives, which are fundamental to prevention of separation of children from their families and communities.

Every child is a bundle of possibilities, and all they need is someone to journey with them.

I invite you to be the hand that holds these little children’s hands by being part of the change from the orphanage system to a family-based care system.


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