4km north of Mtwapa, just off a sandy road covered with pieces of plastic and – strangely enough – lots of hair extensions, you’ll find a wall with broken glass on top. It’s a wall between two worlds. On one side, you’ll find men getting drunk from palm wine and girls at risk of being married out because their family needs the money, Marieke Clotscher believes. On the other side of the wall the retired Dutch management coach founded Upendo Children Home. One day, the 24 orphans that are being looked after, will have to change worlds again, she realises. “Soon, they’ll spend a week with their guardians.” You can tell by her face this worries her. “You just don’t know what will happen.”
Marieke knows what it feels like to be lonely. Her family never took the effort to see what she’s doing in Kenya. “I even offered to pay their tickets, but they still refused.” While she says it with a controlled voice, you can tell it’s not the way she wanted it. Family is important. And even more important in Kenya, Marieke knows. Having 24 orphans living in the orphanage she’s build from the ground up, she has 24 children at risk of becoming loners in a heavy family-depended society. Therefore she is determined to put a reintegration program in place. Even though she finds it hard to trust the people she depends on to make it work. There were too many incidents. From the cleaning lady going through her wallet to ‘mamas’ from the orphanage throwing children’s cloths over the wall.
“Not being trustworthy is deep within the culture, at least here at the coast”, Marieke says as if she is lecturing a class. But although she finds it inconvenient, Marieke always finds a way to deal with tricks people try to pull of. If a matatu driver overcharges her with 10 shilling (0,10 euro), she won’t ride with him anymore. Stealing mamas are quickly replaced (“I became really good in firing people”) and the government official that had to sign the building permit for the orphanage, was looked in the eyes by Marieke until he dropped the additional costs he had made up. And although Marieke is as good as keeping her emotions to herself as a psychiatrist while interviewing a patient, there is some pride in her eyes when she claims the Upendo Children Home was build entirely corruption free.
If I look what I’ve achieved, I’d say this is the whipped cream on the coffee of my career
But by not trusting anyone, Marieke has also isolated herself. To her, the 21 Upendo staff members will always be staff. Never friends, let alone family. Then again, making friends was not the reason why she started this orphanage, she says. A safari trip she made in 2005 showed her more than grazing giraffes and towering elephants. “I was shocked by how people were suffering.” Coincidentally she met a Kenyan on the plane who was volunteering in different orphanages. He offered her to visit some of them. After she did, Marieke drew her conclusions: “If you want to do it right, you have to do it yourself.” As an entrepreneur she saw an opportunity to use her skills. “I’m in this world to help others develop. Now, if I look what I’ve achieved, I’d say this is the whipped cream on the coffee of my career.”
Not a cuddle granny
From 2008 Marieke spent eight months per year in Kenya – she likes to be in control. In 2010 the Upendo Children Home was opened. She hired Betty, the manager of Upendo, and started the lengthy process of coaching her. 24 orphans found in surrounding villages were selected to live in Upendo and leave their caretakers, who were already having a hard time to look after their own children. The selection was made in cooperation with the local child protection unit. Because of government regulations, Upendo has to assess the situation of the guardians every three years. If there is little or no improvement, the children are allowed to stay in the orphanage until the next assessment or when they reach the age of 18. It sounds technical, but for Marieke this works well. She wants the best for the children, but not because she feels they are like her own children. “I’m not a cuddle granny. I want Upendo to be well managed”, she says with a flat expression on her face. Today, she believes Betty is capable to do just that – Marieke has reduced her time in Kenya to ten weeks instead of eight months per year.
Well managed to Marieke means there is discipline (“no tv except on Sunday afternoon”), the staff works as a team (“everybody should feel responsible for the children, not just the mamas”) and the children are given the best possible opportunity when it comes to education (the primary school most of them attend, ranks in the regional top 10). To the Kenyan government, that has licensed the orphanage, there is at least one more thing Upendo has to do in order to maintain its status as an officially recognised institution: all children should be offered a reintegration program. Meaning that the children of Upendo should be regularly in touch with their remaining relatives.
Some of these families are living in nothing more than a goat shed
Thinking of the places where Marieke found the children living in Upendo, she has a difficult time coping with the idea that they soon will go back there for a visiting week. “Some of these families are living in nothing more than a goat shed.” It’s a tremendous contrast with Upendo where a slippery floor is the most likely thing to cause trouble. To prepare the children for the world that awaits, Marieke tells the oldest girls who are in their 13s, that they can say no if their families want to marry them out. She also explains how their bodies are changing, and how teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS is an ever-present risk. Josef, the social worker attached to Upendo, educates the boys, especially on drugs and ‘bad friends’.
Josef often sees how Marieke is struggling with the reintegration program. “But for how long can you worry?” he asks. He visits the relatives of the Upendo children to prepare them for the visiting week. “We ask the guardians how they will look after the children and urge them not to expose them to ‘bad things.’” Josef stresses the importance of the visiting week. “These children belong to their family. If they don’t learn to defend themselves in their community, they can be in great trouble. When they become adults and are not in touch with their relatives, they’ll have nowhere to go.”
No light switches
How different life is within Upendo compared to the world around it, can easily be seen after a visit to some of the guardians. There are no light switches in the houses build from clay. And while in Upendo drinkable water runs from many taps, most of the guardians have to carry their drinking water from a well a few hundred meters away. It hardly sound appealing, going back there, but in Africa tradition, family is the only certainty in life. Being detached from them, means being as isolated as Marieke in Kenya.
Behind your back
When well managed, Marieke believes orphanages can provide a bright future for children who most likely would have been lost on the street. And although she finds it extremely difficult due to her experiences with the trustworthiness of Kenyans, she believes reintegration is possible and necessary. Would she have choosen a different path if she could do it all over again? “Nowadays it’s becoming popular to support orphans within their villages instead of building an orphanage. But what happens behind your back, when you’re not there?”