Mary Wakefield

How to fix orphanages

Really, most of them should be shut down

Text settings

Kigali, Rwanda

Madame B has dressed up for our visit. She’s sitting on a bench with her back to the orphanage wall, talking about just how much she loves each child, but it’s her get-up that’s most impressive: black silk dress, hair done, make-up just so; finger and toenails painted hot pink, each with an elegant white scalloped edge.

Everything else here, at the Mpore Pefa home for children, is muted: grey walls, grey kids, blurred by dirt. Those toes are an anomaly. ‘My husband and I started this home after the war,’ Madame B is saying. ‘Since he died, it is so difficult.’ Her eyes slide from left to right, checking our reaction. ‘The children all want to suckle my breasts,’ she says, gesturing to her chest, full of long-­suffering self-pity. ‘They all want to embrace me.’ Here she pulls a ringwormy tot to her side, smothering it into the silk.

It’s true, the children at Pefa are keen huggers. When we first pushed open the steel doors of their compound, they leapt up on us like puppies. One girl — let’s call her Amy — has been wrapped around my waist since I arrived, her knees digging frog-wise into my sides. She clings on as Madame B talks, and stays clinging as I nose around the corridors of the children’s home, poking my head into the cell-like bedrooms, seeing toddlers everywhere, lying doggo though it’s midday.

Amy’s not OK. That’s quite clear. Her need to be hugged is too desperate to be healthy. Saddest of all is Kay. Kay’s not a clinger. She sits on the concrete floor, staring into the middle distance as if she’s 93, not three.

We stroke her arms, try to catch her eye, but she’s absent, unreachable, somewhere far away inside her skull. Kay’s nappy is soaked cold, but she doesn’t squeak. The older kids lope around their kennel, throwing stones, climbing the fence right up to the rolls of razor-wire.

The Mpore Pefa home for children is an all-too-common phenomenon: an orphanage funded by churchgoers in distant countries, too far away to keep tabs. But with all the goodwill in the world, it’s clear there’s only damage being done here. The children at Pefa are suffering every day. So the question becomes: what now?

Well, what would you do? Here, with Amy’s arms still D-locked round my neck, I’m making it your problem. Perhaps you’d begin by recruiting a new manager and better staff? Then make sure the kids had vitamins and footballs, or a wide range of felt-tips? It’s a reasonable-sounding approach and the one taken by our own Conservative party, which sponsors the Gisimba orphanage across town in west Kigali.

But if that’s your preferred solution — make Pefa better — then I’m afraid you’re going to have to change your mind, as I’ve changed mine over the past few days, and as Andrew Mitchell at DFID must change his, unless he’s the sort of icy psycho who’d really rather have a photo op than a healthy child.

The truth is that Mpore Pefa should be shut down. It cannot and should not be improved. And this isn’t just true of Pefa, or orphanages in Kigali, or in Rwanda, or even just Africa. This is true of the vast majority of so-called orphanages all over the world, from Africa through Europe and the Americas.

It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Shut down all orphanages worldwide? How on earth could that be a good thing? Here is where Hope and Homes for Children come in. Hope and Homes is a charity that was once in the orphanage-building business itself. They began in war-blasted Sarajevo when Mark Cook, a UN commander, decided to rebuild a children’s home that had been blown up. On a return trip to visit the spanking new building, he asked one child what more he wanted. The reply came: a family. Some 15 years later, Hope and Homes works across eastern Europe and Africa, not building orphanages but closing them down and ­reuniting children with their families instead, spending the dosh that would have built the orphanage on supporting families before they fracture.

What families? Orphans don’t have families! Except, as it turns out, they do. And they’re mostly keen to have their kids back. This is the fact which changed my mind: of the eight million or so children in institutions worldwide, roughly four out of every five of them have at least one parent still alive. By and large, kids are in institutions because their desperate mother or father assumes that an orphanage will give their kid better food and a better education. So they leave little Amy on the Pefa doorstep, and then there’s no way back, because in Rwanda at least, it’s illegal to abandon your child. Any mother who tries to claim her kid back will be banged up.

Maybe you think, as I did, that those parents had a point. Some of the Pefa kids might be better off in institutions — where they’ll at least be fed. It’d be nice to think so. An easier sell for all the aid money Mr Mitchell has to give away: which voter will argue with a photo of smiling, scoffing kids? But I’m afraid the science isn’t on your side. A family — and that includes extended family if needs be, or a foster family — will always suit a child better than an orphanage, for the simple reason that we’ve evolved that way. Human babies are born peculiarly unformed, our brains mouldable so that we can adapt to the environment we find ourselves in. If that environment is an institution, our chances of becoming functioning adults grow dim. A chaotic institution like Pefa is likely to create an adult wracked with anxiety and anger and no self-control. An ordered institution, one that might look smashing in brochures say, may mean an adult who is institutionalised; unable to cope with the chaos of outside life.

Here’s another catch-22. To develop properly, a baby needs attachment figures: a consistent care-giver who looks him in the eye, reassures him that he’s safe. But at even the best orphanage, even at Gisemba, staff are taught not to let children attach. It’s impossible to have a child dependent on one particular staff member. And so with all the hard cash in the world, it’s impossible for the children to develop properly in institutions. Damas Gisimba, the home’s manager, understands this: he’s attended training days run by Hope and Homes. The Rwandan government understand: last year they gave the go-ahead to Hope and Homes to close Mpore Pefa as a pilot project. All that money is so much better spent supporting families before they fracture — which is what Hope and Homes for Children do in countries worldwide. Will Mr Mitchell get it too? Here’s hoping.


Madame B has stopped talking so we take a stroll around. Innocent, a tall, handsome man in charge of DI (De-Institutionalisation) for Hope and Homes in Rwanda, introduces Patrick, one of the older boys at Pefa. Patrick is sitting on his bunk bed, looking at his football shoes. Innocent says: ‘Patrick’s story will show you how we find the children’s families, that it is possible, in almost every case, to reunite them however hard it seems.’

Innocent works with Epa — they’re the No. 1 families detective agency for Hope and Homes and they have a genius for following clues. Patrick had just two clues. He recalled the nickname of his older brother and he had a dim memory of a big banana plantation near the bend in a river.

‘We went to the market and we asked around,’ says Innocent. ‘Oh, it took a long time, but eventually we found a man of the right name in a place that looked right, and they remembered the baby, Patrick. Who was abandoned. Now we must prepare him and prepare the family to have him back. It is very slow, patient work.’

Do you like it here at Pefa? I ask Patrick. ‘Yes,’ he says mechanically, looking at the floor. Would you rather stay at Pefa or leave? He looks up: ‘I want a family.’

There is writing scrawled on back of Patrick’s door: ‘Why should God put up with one who behaves like me?’ It’s time Patrick got out.

When we leave Pefa, the children tail us up the dirt track, in a gaggle behind Madame B’s slow-moving backside. She’s off now to town, and fancies a lift in our jeep. We wave goodbye. Who knows how the children of Mpore Pefa will remember her? Not with much affection I don’t suppose. But the truth is that for all her disengagement, she’s the hero here. She didn’t have to invite Hope and Homes for Children to Mpore Pefa — it’s not a state-run institution. She didn’t have to begin the painful business of dismantling the home she set up. The truth is, she saved these children once, by taking them in, and now, by letting them go, she’s saving them again.

To watch Mary’s film about Mpore Pefa and Hope and Homes for Children, go to

Written byMary Wakefield

Mary Wakefield is commissioning editor of The Spectator.

Topics in this articleSociety