A double orphan in Lesotho, Po Pe has lived in a children's home since she was about ten. Her father died when she was young, and her father's family did not want to take care of the widow and her children. Later her mother died, and that family, from South Africa, also refused to care for the children. Po Pe and her siblings were left to fend for themselves until the Department of Social Development stepped in and placed her and her siblings in care.

Her caregivers are very concerned for Po Pe. She seems very unhappy, gives one word answers, and is at times suicidal. She does not engage with the other children and says she is "too old to play". Carers for children like Po Pe are on the "front lines" of a battle for the hearts of these children. Will the children have a sense of hope and confidence as they emerge into adulthood--one that comes from a secure and loving attachment to a caregiver, or will they approach it with fear and hopelessness, their needs for security and belonging unaddressed?

In a training earlier in May, we addressed children's needs in Mahale's Hoek, Lesotho, in an area ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Children are the collateral damage, orphaned when their parents die, or abandoned when the father dies and the mother leaves for South Africa to find work, or abused, sexually and physically by adults, including family members.

Early on in the training, we discussed the metaphor of child development as a stream of water, flowing naturally because of a God-given push for growth in children, but often slowed or halted by huge rocks in that stream--rocks such as orphaning, abuse, violence in the community, displacement, war, and poverty. My translator, and a leader in the community, spoke--in tears--to say "we are often the rocks in the stream. We treat the children very harshly."

About thirty caregivers and I grappled with the issues of trauma and loss in children, how to care for their heart needs, as we became great friends, playful and serious, discussing and praying. We focused on Po Pe's needs--her early trauma, the loss of security and trust that she had experienced over and over, and the loss of hope she had for her own life. They also learned how to engage her through empathy and acceptance--and through loving care, not harsh scolding or detached caregiving. The week culminated in a last morning of play with 40 children from Trust for Africa, my host's organization. Then we parted with a long line of caregivers singing and dancing until they could each give me a hug, and tears ran down my face and many of theirs.

By the end of our time together, many of the caregivers present said "This has changed how I will care for children. Now I know what their heart needs are. Now I know how to help them, rather than making it worse for them." They also decided to meet regularly to discuss the children and apply the ideas learned.

I left Lesotho with Po Pe on my mind, and the hope of returning next year to train trainers who can carry on the work of training others to care for vulnerable children. And I left with much gratitude for the work God is doing in hearts and minds as we confront such challenging issues for children.

From Lesotho

*To protect privacy, neither the name nor the photo are of Po Pe, though it is a Basotho name.


My heart is full today.

After several full and delightful days of training in Nairobi, today I traveled to its outskirts—to a small, poor community where my Kenyan friend, Jayne, runs an orphanage.

The road to the children’s home is very rutted and very dusty. It has room for one car to pass only, so if another car approaches, or heaven forbid, a lorry (truck, for my American friends), someone has to leave the road, hoping to also avoid the children playing in the ditch beside it.

Down this dusty road we travel, past the goats and chickens, people walking, or sitting in their doorsteps, children playing with sticks in the dirt and shouting “How are you?” as I pass by. And we do wait in the ditch for a lorry. The shops are all painted bright colors, and the glare of the sun on this warm January day, along with the dust, makes it hard to see ahead.

Eventually, we turn into the metal gate by a concrete wall and building, the orphanage. Inside, it is clean, with a shamba (garden) and place for the goats and chickens on one side, and the dormitories for the children on the other. It is Saturday morning, and all the children are home, but it is fairly quiet as they go about their chores.

We meet Jayne, the Kenyan director of the orphanage, who has been my friend for a number of years. (Her story will be on our website soon.) We greet each other with a hug, and after tea, Jayne sends to me and my friend, Dennis, two boys whom we interview about their stories. Dennis (also Kenyan, and a former student of mine) and I toss a balloon with the boys, both very small for their 11 years. Then I show them how to play cotton ball football (by blowing!), and with great relish they take on Dennis and soundly defeat him. These two seem to have a lot of wind.

Then for the gentler part, listening as the children tell a bit of their stories. "What do you remember about coming to the orphanage? Or what have you been told?" And later, "What do you know about your parents?" Dennis follows my lead in Kiswahili. Moses and Daniel shake their heads. They tell us they don’t remember living anywhere else. "Do they know why they are at the orphanage—what has happened to their families?" Again, no. Moses says that Auntie Jayne told him that his mother was Hindu and his father Kikuyu. (That would no doubt have been a forbidden liaison in both cultures.) But that is all he knows.

Daniel says he prays for his family every day, and hopes they are having a good life. He wonders if they are having any problems. Then he goes on to say he feels that they just put him somewhere, here, but he doesn’t know why. He tries not to even think about it because no one comes to visit him. He also tries to be patient, hoping that God will help him find his family.

Moses thinks he used to be sleep close to his parents. But then they decided to bring him here, and he doesn’t know why. He thinks about them, and sits alone and is sad.

Dennis and I are aware that the boys have become very quiet. Moses has taken a pillow and all but hidden his face behind it. Daniel is sitting quite still. The first thing I tell the boys, quietly, is that “no matter what has happened to you, no matter why you are not with your parents, it is not your fault”!  I hold up four fingers with them, and they do too, and Dennis and I repeat “It’s not your fault!” while counting it out on their fingers.

A little while of later, we have listened more, and spoken about families, and how some parents cannot take care of their children, even though they love them. We end our time together with play again. As we say goodbye, and Dennis makes plans to return soon, I hope the boys will remember “It’s not my fault” when they think about their story—that story with huge gaping holes, that leaves them with questions, profound sadness, wounded hearts.

I am reminded today of how crucial it is for a child to have a coherent narrative—a story that he can understand about his life that starts at the beginning. A story that includes to whom the child belongs, and who cares about him. A story that honors the pieces that are missing and helps the child grieve. A story that draws the child into God's great narrative of love, grace, healing in brokenness.

I am also reminded how crucial it is to tend to orphans’ hearts.I am more than ever convinced of the need for caregivers to receive training so they understand how important it is to nurture these orphans as they would their own children, understanding that orphans do not lose the need to be nurtured, delighted in, to be received, and to belong.

So my heart is full. Full of grief for Moses and Daniel, who live quietly with wondering and broken hearts. And full of determination to support caregivers to understand the heart needs of these children. And full of gratitude. For people like Jayne and Dennis, who love the children, who are willing to learn about their needs, and who give of themselves to help heal these small ones’ wounded hearts.

From Patrice

Nairobi, 31 January 2015

**Names of the children have been changed to protect their privacy.