“The internationally accepted definition of Orphan is a child under the age of 18 who has lost one or both parents”. (Situational Analysis of Orphans and other….Gambia Bureau of Statistics). While this may be contested by some as a modern way of viewing the situation it is clear that the loss of a mother or a father can have a great impact on the life of a child. Under Islam the loss of a father makes a child an orphan. Orphans are more likely to be malnourished than their contemporaries.
For orphans, they join other family members as part of an extended family and become one of the family. There is no distinction between adopted or half siblings, whether orphaned or not. Both orphans and their contemporaries work outside for money from around 8 years old. Primarily this is street vending, farm or domestic work.
Different tribes have names for an orphan. In Jola they are known as “Asukutenaw”. In Mandinka they are known as “Kilongdingo” – Kiling being the number one and Dingo, child. If the mother dies, the child is usually given to the maternal family. Like sisters, or grandmothers where there are no other younger female relatives. Alternatively, if the mother dies, the co-wife will take on the children. If a boy child looses his father he is given to male relatives to be taken care of. Either way, if the child is cared for by someone who is poor, the child is vulnerable and may lack proper care, nutrition and accommodation. “I was asked to leave school after the death of my father. I had to drop out of school as there was no one to pay my fees. Presently I am an apprentice Mason” Banjul Orphan. Other orphans reported going to school with no lunch money and without the correct learning materials as not all guardians are willing or able to assist.
Not long after we began to clothe the street kids, way before we even thought about education and sponsorship we heard of a brother and sister, then aged 3 and 5 who lost their mother to Malaria. The father long gone when the mother became pregnant with the younger child. The boy Modou more visibly distressed and the girl more inwardly traumatised. Bed wetting a common feature of small kids who lose their parents as a young age, having formed a bond and relationship but not mature enough to manage their emotions. He cried himself to sleep every day for months. The girl became more insecure, very shy and unwilling to leave her new adopted mother’s side. In this case the mother’s own mother had suffered a stroke and was unable to take on two young kids. While sick in hospital, the mother had asked her best friend if she would take on the kids. Her friend having two boys already of similar ages. No paperwork was completed. No distinction between her newly adopted children and her existing kids, this woman now had doubled the number of mouths to feed overnight. This was my first experience of kids being orphaned here and it affected me deeply. Sol and I even discussed taking them on ourselves, but the new mum insisted she was coping fine. So we became auntie and uncle and instead of full time parents had them for weekend visits where we played in the surf and built sandcastles on the shore. When we began the sponsorship programme, these two were among the first to go to school. The additional help not just making an educational difference to their futures, but to the lives of all the kids this woman has bravely cared for without complaint.
As the sponsorship grew, word of mouth soon got around, despite trying to swear the lucky parents to secrecy. We knew that once word got out we were helping find sponsors for their kids, we would be inundated with requests. And so it was “Mirrow” came to us. Mirrow is a term used here to describe an elderly lady. It is a sign of respect and unlike the UK if you called someone “old lady” she might bash you with her handbag. Mirrow was in her 70’s. Her daughter having married and died before the child reached a year old. The husband dying some time after. We always tried to focus on the most needy when deciding which families to take on for sponsorship, and being an orphan or child of a lone parent made the top of the list. Abli finishes Nursery 3 this summer and needs a new sponsor to enable him to continue in school from September. Always in the top half of the class, bright and cheeky he will do well with the right sponsor to support him.
Most of our bigger kids have been with us for years. But on occasion we take on an elder child if the need warrants it. Like Anta, an early teen when her mother passed away. The father having died years before I even stepped foot on Gambian sand. With no close living relatives, Anta went to live with a neighbour and their family. The whole community shocked and saddened at Anta’s misfortune, we stepped in and she found her amazing sponsor who is with her still. As devastating as the loss of her mum must have been, she has cracked on and focused on her studies and tried to get good grades.
Maybe 2 or 3 years into her sponsorship Mariama lost her only living parent, her mother to TB. With no female relatives to take her on, she bonded with Sol’s sister Serey who provided comfort and lunch money where possible. The sponsor felt this loss almost as much as Mariama herself, and sought to fund raise enough money to keep Mariama in text books, examination fees, lunch money and school transport for a good 2 plus years. You see,the older the kids get the more the schools demand payment for. Study fees, exam fees, ITC fees, Development fund, PTA etc etc and so it goes on. The S4K programme only covers the basics – school fees for private school not the extras like these and the fun times like school excursions, Christmas parties, Eid festivals and sport days. All of those are extra and if the family can’t afford it, the child is excluded from such activities, isolating them and compounding their vulnerability as orphans or children of poverty.
Then there is Sam. Short for Samsadeen. His mum came to us as a single parent and broke down in tears when we told her a sponsor was there for her son. All she ever wanted she said, was for Sam to learn at school and have a better life than she had. Upon our return from the UK one summer we learned Sam’s mum had “gone the back way” and was stuck in Mauritania. To this day we don’t know what happened to her but she left Sam with an “uncle” remember Uncle can mean any male friend or family member not your traditional view of uncle. Having been to the school and noticed Sam’s absence we visited their compound to find Sam had been taken by a female relative of the mother to Brikama, a town many miles away. When we finally caught up with her, she told us Sam had contracted chicken pox, which was serious and no one told us. He was almost dead on the floor when this lady found him. 3 weeks in hospital later he went to live with her permanently.
Not all the kids are lucky enough to have a kind benevolent carer waiting on the wings to take on others kids. Two girls spring to mind. Ousainatou and MaSerey. From totally different backgrounds. Ousainatou was born in Gambia to Sierra Leonian parents who came here to escape the war there. She has learning difficulties and the lady who took her own might as well have been accused of modern slavery before she got a sponsor. A neighbour of ours, the screaming from the beatings caused me to intervene. We held a meeting with the family and I discussed ways of chastising her that didn’t necessitate a beating with a stick. The poor kid was bed wetting, had ringworm on her face and a right miserable existence cleaning, cooking and generally being very unhappy. Her sponsor gave her hope of a brief interlude to the drudgery. Broken English and a gappy smile she loved going to school, and although her results would never put her in the top ten of anything academic, she had something to cherish as her own. Her education. I am glad to report that some other relatives came from SL and have taken her away from the life she had as an orphan taken in my “strangers”. Sadly for her, her sponsorship did not last and she needs someone special to help her put the smile back on her face.
The second girl MaSerey also lived a life of beatings and drudgery with the archetypical wicked grandmother. Whether she is indeed a biological grandparent or other blood relative. MaSerey has been with her since I moved here in 2011. One of the advantages having a sponsor gives us, is leverage. If we are unhappy with a way a kid is being treated we can use the sponsorship as medium to encourage better behaviour. Everybody wants a sponsor. Of course, not all sponsors are created equal and some go above and beyond to help their kids. And a very special few go above and beyond to help not only their sponsored kids and family but kids like MaSerey. MaSerey is what we call here “stubborn”. Its used to describe difficult kids and wilful behaviour. But she badly wanted to join her compound friends in school, so the stubbornness had to go in order to go to school. And she has done exceptionally well. Every school report after the 1st year of teething troubles have been excellent. Well done MaSerey.
Sonar aged 6-7 is a cherub. I say 6-7 because knowing the kids exact ages can be tricky where a large number of births in villages are not recorded at all or if they are, there is little respect for paperwork from illiterate parents. Yes I know we shouldn’t have favourites, but its real life and I do. Sonar is one of mine. She lost both parents before the age of 4 and is being raised by her elderly maternal grandparents, who we call Bojang and Mirrow, Bojang being grandpa’s second name and Mirrow see above! Quiet and shy but so sweet natured she had amazing sponsors until they found themselves unexpectedly with twins and 3 boys under 3. So here she is again, waiting for someone with a long term commitment to sponsoring her education.
In addition to these orphans we currently have another 35 kids with either one parent or no parents still alive or in this country. So if people tell you orphans are rare in Gambia that doesn’t fit with the facts. It may be an opinion based on their demographic. But it is not these kids reality. In 2009 UNICEF calculated there were 72,000 orphans in Gambia. With a population of 1.9 million in 2015 with life expectancy of 60 years.
For further reading to ascertain the facts: