Dutch Couple Runs Orphanage in Uganda

Photo by Tom Mills

Upon entering the world, Matthew Banjensasi faced a tough reality: His parents did not want him. At birth, the young Ugandan was instantly denied one of life's most basic needs -- a family.

Thus began a chain of events that tainted Matthew's early life. His mother conceived him after being raped and refused to care for him. She could not locate his father, so she gave him to the man's mother, who reluctantly took Matthew in.

His grandmother ran a shop in Kampala and was already the caretaker of several other children. She gave Matthew little attention and let him wander the streets as soon as he could walk.

For two years Matthew lived this way. He wouldn't speak or even respond to his own name.

Matthew's story is not unusual. Parentless and forgotten children abound in Uganda. According to the latest census, 1.8 million orphans, equivalent to the population of the state of Nebraska, live there.

Many children are orphaned or abandoned because of poverty, civil war and especially HIV/AIDS -- a devastating threat to Africa. Because of these compounding social ills, many of Uganda's children live life without a family. And for Matthew and many others, there is no easy solution to the problem.

As Matthew grew to be a toddler, his grandmother could no longer care for him. What little roots he had were soon severed.

In March 2001, word of Matthew's predicament spread to a Dutch missionary couple, Pietr and Pita Butendijk. They were starting a  home, Noah's Ark Children's Ministry Uganda. Matthew became the second child they took in.

"Don't bother trying to get him to talk," his grandmother had told them. "His tongue is tied, and he will never speak."

Early photographs of Matthew reveal a boy with an incredibly frightened and hollow look in his eyes -- like he was beyond reach. "He was very shy and scared," Pita says. "He kept his head down, and he would never look you in the eye."

Pietr and Pita wanted to give him a new life, so they were the ones to name him Matthew, meaning "gift from God."

Within a few days, Matthew spoke his first word to Pita: "Mama."

At Noah's Ark, the young Ugandan found a new home. But his new life could not erase past pain or the uncertainty of his future. In the early days, the children's home was small, reminiscent of a real family, but soon more children came -- one each month on average.

Today, there are 68 children in the home and the numbers keep growing. In the future, Pietr expects to have as many as 300 kids, maybe more. Although it gets the kids off the street, Noah's Ark is not the ideal place for children to grow up. "The children's home is not the solution," says Pietr. "The family is the solution."

Family is precisely what Matthew and the others need, though they may not know it just yet. At 7 years old, Matthew is one of the oldest children at the home. There are many infants. He will continue to stay at the home until he is old enough to live on his own.

Or until he is adopted.

Thus far, only one of the children from Noah's Ark has been adopted. Because of laws and red tape, it is very difficult for people outside of Uganda to adopt the children. Uganda's Children's Act states that a foreigner must live in Uganda for three years before they can have custody. And many Ugandans are too poor or unwilling to adopt the children.

So Matthew and the others seem destined to stay at Noah's Ark.

On most mornings, the shrill shouts of children awaken Matthew. A caretaker ushers him to the showers and then he selects his clothes for the day. On this particular day, he chooses a gaudy T-shirt and pants -- the clothes are communal, so Matthew does not have any of his own.

He also selects a necklace with a wooden fish symbol with "Jesus" written in the middle.

Spiritual development is an important focus of Noah's Ark. From an early age, Matthew and others learn about how to have a relationship with God.

On an afternoon during Uganda's rainy season, Matthew sits with several children in a small room with cartoon caricatures on the walls. A group of American volunteers from GAiN, the humanitarian aid ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, teaches a Bible lesson.

"The Lord said to Noah, there's gonna be a floody, floody," sings the group. Outside, the rain angrily pounds the tin roof, and the humid air fogs the windows. Several of the children sit on the laps of adults, while Matthew sits by himself, staring vacantly.

In social settings Matthew is often timid and untrusting, evidence of hurt he has yet to work through.

In a room filled with bright numbers, the kids spread out at tables to color. Two girls begin fighting over crayons, but Matthew pays no attention. He concentrates intently on his masterpiece, coloring trees a deep green and a lion a bold yellow.

He pauses, in contemplation, and then begins to shade blue over the entire picture, which fades and washes out the bright colors.

In many ways, the colors and splendor of Africa are being washed out as well by the abuses and neglect of its people. Noah's Ark is located in Mukono, a district rife with poverty and crime. The area is also known for child sacrifice, part of an indigenous religious practice.

Owen, one of the children at Noah's Ark, was rescued from a witch doctor who planned to sacrifice him in a waterfall. But now Owen is able to color like Matthew and the others, and he can remain safe, in part because of a large wall surrounding most of the 48-acre property, which was donated by GAiN. With pop-bottle shards standing on the top of the wall like spikes, the structure is designed to be protective -- for good reasons.

Late-night prowlers have snuck onto the property and stolen tools and building materials, but no one at Noah's Ark has been harmed.

The children are oblivious to such things and focus their energies elsewhere.

On a Wednesday evening, a mob of kids waits in anticipation in a large cafeteria. Twin girls named Naomi and Deborah proudly wear colorful birthday hats.

"We want the cake," shouts Pietr. Children quickly join the chant, pounding on the tables.

Pita slices the chocolate cake, and everyone cheers. With 68 children, birthdays happen frequently at this house.

But like many of the children at the home, Matthew does not know his real birthday. Pietr and Pita could not discover the real date, but gave him a substitute day of March 26 on which to celebrate -- the day they got him.

Before moving into the big facility, Matthew and others lived in a three-bedroom house, which they quickly outgrew. But those were happy times for Matthew. It was the first time people started to pay attention to him.

One day while cutting Matthew's hair, Pietr shaved it on the sides, leaving a patch of hair on top, like a small hat -- similar to the Karamojong tribes of northern Uganda. Pietr called him "Daddy's Karamojong." Matthew flushed with pride at the name.

The haircut was strange, but Matthew was happy. "And that is what is important," says Pita.

Even now, Matthew sometimes asks for his hair to be cut this way.

A few days after a fresh cut, Matthew helps push a cart with steaming bowls of porridge to a crib of crying babies. He picks up a small baby named Andrew and begins to feed him. Andrew begins to cry, but Matthew calms him.

"Matthew has a very sweet character," says Pita. "I think he could be a nurse when he grows up."

Matthew's future is still a long way off. His life at Noah's Ark is good, but the children's home cannot fully substitute for a family.

In a large dining hall, Matthew sits on the lap of Todd Stauffer, who is part of the GAiN group. Over the past week, Matthew has warmed up to Todd, stepping out of his timid, protective shell.

"Earlier, Matthew was being a big, strong boy and helping move suitcases," Todd tells a girl nearby.

Matthew smiles a toothy grin.

"We went from there up to there," Matthew says, pointing toward the muddy road.

For the moment, Todd serves as a father figure to Matthew. But his stay in Uganda will not be long.

Even after the GAiN group leaves, Matthew will continue to desire a father. Pietr and Pita hope that he will soon understand that God is his true Father. As Psalm 27:10 says, "Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me."

But even with this spiritual reality, Matthew will yearn for an earthly family -- until that desire is fulfilled. It is pain and uncertainty he lives with, like so many parentless children in Uganda.

It is a wound that will not soon heal.