Holding the tiny bundle in one hand, I peeled back the blanket already knowing that this baby needed urgent help. I could actually feel his ribs protruding through the thin blanket and could hear his gasping breath before I even saw his face. I had seen this time and time again, but I knew Ibrahim was a severe case.
Ibrahim’s Mum tragically died from breast cancer just after he was born and his Aunt, Sania, was left to care for him. She tried her best but paying for her sister’s funeral bankrupted her already desperate family. Day in, day out, she watched Ibrahim lose weight and become more lethargic as she fed him porridge – milk is just far too expensive for a typical family in Tanzania to buy.
The day I met Ibrahim, he was two months old, yet he weighed only 2 kilos, a kilo and a half less than he had weighed at birth. He was gasping for breath and it was clear he also had pneumonia.
As was the norm in these situations, Social Welfare had prepared the papers to admit Ibrahim to our care. I run a Baby Home called Forever Angels in Tanzania and since 2006 we have cared for hundreds of orphaned and abandoned babies. The work we were doing was undoubtedly essential in many cases – and hundreds of babies had been saved. There was simply nowhere else to care for a baby pulled out of a pit latrine or abandoned at the local graveyard – a Baby Home was needed. But as I watched Ibrahim’s Aunt sob as she turned to leave the nephew she loved in our care, I just knew there had to be a better solution.
Sania loved her nephew. She adored him in fact. She wanted to raise him but simply did not have the means to do so. But we did. Keeping a baby in an orphanage is costly – surely, we could support her to care for him in her own home? Just because the system of putting orphan babies into an orphanage was the norm – didn’t make it the right decision.
As she cradled Ibrahim, her tears turned to smiles as I explained my plan to her. We would help her to give Ibrahim the essential nutrition and medical care he needed – but she could care for him at home. She listened attentively as I taught her how to make a bottle of milk, taking notes to be sure she would do it correctly and at what time to give it. We took them to hospital and bought the required medication for pneumonia…and then, we drove them BOTH home.
Every week, Ibrahim and Sania came to Forever Angels to collect formula milk and to be weighed…and every week he gained weight beautifully. The change in him, in just a few weeks, was miraculous!
After a couple of weeks, I visited Ibrahim at his home. Sania told me that she used to be a seamstress and would love to be able to work again so she could give Ibrahim a better future. She lived in a tiny hut very close to a primary school – so she decided that perhaps making school uniforms would be a successful business. I bought her a sewing machine and some material with the hope that she could earn a living and create a better future for herself and Ibrahim.
Sania exceeded all my expectations – she now has a thriving business and has earned enough money to extend her home and build a water tap. Ibrahim is a healthy and happy toddler. Sania went to Social Welfare for help to save Ibrahim’s life – but she didn’t need him placed in an orphanage. She simply needed some practical help to dig her family out of poverty and to become empowered to lead an independent life. Society’s answer had been to take her baby away and ‘make him into an orphan’. This should never be the ‘norm’. Family preservation is so essential. There is so much research to show the negative impacts of children growing up in orphanages; and the positive impacts of being raised with healthy attachments in a family.
Don’t get me wrong, for some children, a temporary safe-haven is a necessity and can be lifesaving. Our Baby Home, Forever Angels still exists and will probably continue to for the foreseeable future – but the number of babies we care for has more than halved. Because of Ibrahim and Sania – our community program, Maisha Matters, supports hundreds of babies in their own homes, providing nutrition, weekly education workshops and business creation. This answer to the orphan crisis makes lasting change, not just for the baby in need – but for the entire family.
Orphanages should always be a last resort for children. I am proud to tell people that Forever Angels is an orphanage which does not believe in orphanages. I believe in family. I believe that whenever possible, children should be raised in a loving family and I do everything in my power, through Forever Angels, to allow that to happen. Ibrahim and Sania are perfect examples of why.