The writer, Gladys Kalibbala (C), with some Congress members at Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.
Waves of a mid-Spring breeze brushed across my face as I walked down the steps of the plane, yet, to my surprise, the sun was high up. Weird weather, I thought to myself, as I pulled my heavy coat tightly around me. But, like the heck the alien weather mattered! I was excited more than anything about finally being in the United States.
I was honoured to be invited as a guest by Participant Media to different events in various parts of the US for a period of one month. Participant Media is a powerful American media company behind award-winning films like An Inconvenient Truth, The Help and The Kite Runner.
They invited me for the premiere of yet another of their documentary feature film Misconception at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in April last year. The Lost and abandoned Children weekly page that I write in the Saturday Vision newspaper here in Uganda featured prominently in this film.
The trip brought me face to face with the president of the United Nations Foundation, Kathy Calvin, director UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo and many US Congress members like Ami Bera for California ? 7th District, Karen Bass ? 37th Congressional District, Alison MacDonald Senior Policy Advisor, and others.
Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined ever flying to the US. Never. My previous travel experience outside Uganda had been limited to within the region ? Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya. But my weekly effort in the form of the Lost and abandoned Children page eventually paid off ? on a personal level. That?s the one thing that opened the doors to my miraculous journey several hundred miles over sea and land away from home.
The issues at hand
To some, the Lost and abandoned Children page that runs in the weekly Saturday Vision is one of those pages you could flip past without lending second thought ? just another page with stories of children lost or abandoned by their families. For the unbothered, that page could well find itself on the bottom of their reading priority list. But it is this particular page that caught the attention of high profile offices at various United Nations Foundation events both in New York and Washington DC, and received due recognition.
I, being the writer of these stories, participated in these events, including the Why We Care essay series and stories on reproductive health.
Members of the Congress at the Capitol Hill in the capital of the United States Washington DC specifically praised the page for highlighting issues affecting vulnerable children. A number of the children featured have been fortunate enough to reunite with their families, and others have received help in many a way, thanks to this page.
During the meetings in the US, the issue of lack of family planning services came to fore. Some speakers noted that because of this, some women get unwanted pregnancies and give birth to children whom they later abandon.
In similar spirit, professors and students at Pittsburgh University recognized the same page in discussions we carried out when they invited me.
After watching the debut of Misconception in New York City and Washington DC, guests were drawn to the attention of what they called a widespread problem around the world. It was noted that many parents ? especially in the developing world ? who abandon their children do it under the stress of extreme poverty.
The situation, discussants said, is worsened by fathers? failure to get jobs to earn a living and look after their families. Without any channel of financial support, such men abandon their wives and children ? often with life-changing repercussions.
For instance, affected mothers are forced to pull their kids out of school and some hire them out to people they hardly know well to work for as housemaids so that they can eventually channel the often-little pay back to their desperate families. Other school drop-outs engage in petty crime and similar activities to make ends meet. For the latter, the street(s) is their inevitable destination.
For some children recruited as maids, their employers sooner or later kick them out when they feel they cannot manage the arduous responsibilities around the house, primarily because they are too young for the job. The mean ones will throw them out without giving them a penny ? not even for at least transport back home. With empty pockets, such children get stranded and find themselves forlorn and wandering helplessly on the streets until, for the only lucky and willing ones, a Good Samaritan comes along and takes them to Police.
Other children simply run away from their employers after working for some time under straining conditions, without pay, and often times under physical or sexual abuse.
Yet those living with their parents run away from home in pursuit of better opportunities in the city, hoping for a better life there.
On the page, I have profiled many girls between the age of 4 and 11 who have been defiled by their biological fathers. Unfortunately after the arrest of these men, many of these children are abandoned by their very own who claim they have brought curses unto their families.
Together with a few Good Samaritans, I have found myself getting involved in giving care to such children as I cannot leave them on the street just like that.
Back in March 2013, a film company from Los Angeles, USA approached me after reading my online articles. I later participated in their documentary Misconception directed by Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu (awarded for best documentary short subjects).
The crew followed me around for one week as I covered stories of the Lost and abandoned Children page at various Police stations ? where many lost children end up being taken by Good Samaritans.
The documentary team also got interested in stories of children I have enlisted in school after failing to trace their relatives. I have managed to send them to school through this weekly column ? concerned readers contact me whenever I appeal for assistance in education and by working together these children have been able to acquire a form of education.
Well-wishers like Agnes Biryahwaho, director of Entebbe Early Learning School, Polly Ochora, director of Team Christian School located at Lyamutundwe, Entebbe and Victoria Nalongo Namusisi , director of Bright Kids, Uganda at Nalugala have been key in offering the required education.
Children like Trevor Masembe whose parents have not appeared ever since he was found abandoned at Katalemwa Cheshire Children?s Home in March 2013 and Ezra Nagona who was picked from the Central Police Station (CPS) in Kampala are some of the beneficiaries of this good gesture.
About the film
Misconception was filmed in different locations including China, Canada, India and Uganda, and tells the story of global population, its trend and impact on our ever-developing world. The Ugandan part of the documentary, which was screened many times during the New York and Washington DC events in April, 2014, reminded high-profile guests of how uncontrolled population growth has had an impact on the increasing number of abandoned children.
The documentary highlights the urgent need to make family planning services accessible to women in rural areas while men are urged to participate in order to understand better the benefits of planning for their families. The film indicates that by the year 2050 there are expected to be at least nine billion people on earth if family planning is not emphasized.
Prof Hans Rosling, a renowned global health expert who features in the film, explained that ?if concerned authorities take care of people?s most basic needs, the population explosion of the last century will ultimately take care of itself?.
About the film, director Jessica Yu said: ?I like it when my own assumptions are challenged and when I?m being constantly surprised?.
Among the questions that bubbled to the top of the discussion was whether governments have a right to interfere with private bedrooms and personal reproductive choices.
Yu explained that after her film Last Call at the Oasis (about the global water crisis), the population issue arose. ?It was something that kept coming up as we talked to people about water ? the idea that population pressure is this big unspoken factor that could push things in one direction or the other.?
Prof. Rosling concluded that consumption by the richest people in the world is a greater threat to resource depletion than the increasing population numbers of the poorest people in the world.
A few months ago my work with abandoned and lost children was aired on CNN?s weekly show African Voices under the headline The woman saving lost and abandoned children. African Voices highlights Africa?s most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.
Credit goes to Dr Charles Wendo, an editor with Vision Group who first recognized the stories I submitted to him. When I explained that these children get lost almost every day, he decided we should make it a weekly column.
I also convey my appreciation to the Vision Group management for allowing these stories run weekly as readers keep coming to the aid of many of these children.
Gladys Kalibbala, The New Vision