Just outside Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, we met Atete and Uwera in their small house. Clinging to the side of a hill, the house is surrounded by a clay yard with banana plants and roaming goats. Here Atete shared her story of how she became Uwera's mother.
One Friday evening five years ago, Atete was returning home when she heard cries from the trees just beyond her yard. There on the ground lay Uwera, a newborn baby, abandoned and naked apart from a tiny cloth around her waist.
Atete scooped her up and took her home, where she kept her for three weeks while the local community searched for her parents in vain. During this time, Atete, her husband and their own children bonded with Uwera. So much so that they grew desperate to keep her, which is common in African culture where abandoned children are often taken in by local families. The local authorities, however, pressed for Uwera be placed in an orphanage. Atete fought to keep her new daughter, but it defied the authorities’ policy for abandoned children.
Resigned to giving her up, Atete did everything she could to make sure Uwera had whatever she needed before entering the orphanage. She bought baby bottles for the little girl, made sure she had had her vaccinations and registered her birth. All this cost Atete much more than she had, but, she told us, it was the only way in which she could help.
Atete and her own children often visited the orphanage. But Atete was then asked to become a ‘Godmother’ which meant she faced extra charges simply to see Uwera; something which, to her, seemed to go against any sense of what’s fair for a mother.
After a year Uwera was transferred to another orphanage over 80 kilometers away. Atete didn’t realize this for months and no one would tell her where she’d been moved to. It wasn’t until she was three-years-old that Uwera was finally returned. By that time, she’d spent three years in institutional care.
Our colleague, Claudine, explained what conditions were like in the orphanage she returned to. She said she had rarely seen such a terrible place. There were over 50 children in the institution, and they were all kept in the same room, every day, in silence. At night they slept on the floor with insects crawling over them. They were left in their cloth nappies for up to three days before being changed. And there was only one meal each day at 3pm.
By three and a half, Uwera was the size of a two-year-old and still couldn’t walk or talk. Eighteen months ago, following an overhaul of the country’s institutions, we began working with local government to close the orphanage. This is how we discovered Atete and her link to Uwera. Our social workers were quick to recommend that Uwera should return home to Atete and supported the whole family through the process.
When we visited them at home, Uwera looked out from behind her mother’s legs – a beautiful little girl, with bright, wide eyes. Atete told us that when she first got Uwera back she felt like she was carrying a dead body. She was so thin from malnutrition and her throat so tiny that water pooled between her collar bones as she was bathed.
By slowly feeding her, Atete gradually built her back up. But Uwera’s development has clearly been delayed – she is very small for her age and has still not fully recovered from the infections she developed through wearing cloth nappies for long periods of time. Her mother told us that she is still terrified if anyone speaks to her in an angry tone. As a result, when Uwera does something wrong, her mother has to respond calmly and quietly.
But now Uwera can walk and talk. She smiles endlessly and is clamped to her mother’s legs. She has started to wander beyond the fence in the yard and has a couple of friends in the village. Atete is now focused on preparing Uwera for her next big step: Nursery.
When we met Atete’s other children, her eldest daughter told us, "She is the darling of the family." This big sister played a significant role in keeping in contact with Uwera. As she was a child, the orphanage staff didn’t mind her visiting as much as they did Atete and so she enjoyed better access. Because of this, she’s known as Uwera's second mother.
Atete spoke passionately about the need for children to grow up in families and be loved. She said she was now full of hope since the government’s strategy of placing abandoned children in institutions ended. Instead, new services have been developed such as emergency foster care.
Atete finished by saying that Uwera is no longer frightened by adults. She is safe and she is loved, and to her she is a gift from God.
As we left, it dawned on us that this very special lady has saved her daughter twice. And I’m convinced she will have a loving family for the rest of her life.
This is what supporting Hope and Homes for Children means on an individual level. But the charity has also played a lead role in ending the institutional care of children nationally. Rwanda will soon be free of institutions for children. With this evidence of our success at country level, we’re working worldwide to champion families for children over orphanages.
As published in WERTE No. 5, Deutsche Bank Wealth Management's client magazine