This is Part I of a two-part series on Ugandan street children and the work of Good Future and Hope Foundation.
“Do not bring anything valuable,” Viera said. “No money, no phones, no watches or jewelry.” I patted my pockets to confirm I had taken everything out. Standing in the hotel courtyard as the Ugandan dusk began to creep overhead, I felt the weighty absence of my wallet and mobile phone.
My group stood nervously around as Viera gave instructions, each more ominous than the last. A ubiquitous, burning odor hung in the air, mingling with the smell of garbage and cow manure. Pop music wafted over from the outdoor common area of the compound where local children were dancing on stage for no one in particular. Przemek, a Polish national currently living in Dubai, took a long, last drag of his cigarette before stubbing it out.
Viera eyed our group calmly. “Once we get out of the van, stay close to me and do everything I say. If I say turn right, turn right. If I say step back, step back. If I say run, run.”
Almost everyone on my team was in Africa for the first time. Many were anxious, even afraid, of what lay ahead. Over the course of my career, I have traveled to more than 70 countries, including post-conflict and post-disaster environments like Iraq and Haiti. But even I, under the circumstances, felt a little nervous. “When the children approach you, do not give them anything,” Viera said. “If we start to attract attention, just listen to my instructions and do exactly as I say. Any questions?”
“How long does it take to get there?” someone asked.
“Depending on traffic, it should be about two hours, maybe more. We will stay until around 10 pm and then return.”
“Should I take off my wedding band?” I asked.
“You should never take off your wedding band,” Viera said. “Not until you die.”
“Which could be tonight,” Przemek added helpfully.
With that, we boarded the van and began our journey to downtown Kampala.
In a country of just under 40 million people, UNICEF estimates that Uganda is home to two million orphans, where more than half were orphaned by Africa’s AIDS epidemic. Without homes or parents to feed and care for them, the Ugandan government estimates that more than 10,000 of these children live on the streets of Kampala, the country’s capital.
Viera Liebe is the Executive Director of Good Future and Hope Foundation, an organization that focuses on getting orphans off the streets, providing them with warm beds, healthy meals, and an education. A Slovakian national married to a German, she and her husband Hannes split their time between Dubai, Uganda, and Myanmar, the location of the other orphanage they run. They are making plans to establish orphanages in other countries that cater to street children. I was part of a small group of people who wanted to see the Foundation’s work firsthand and determine how to leverage SAP’s global pro bono programs to further their work.
Located a few hours outside Kampala, the orphanage is a blissful oasis compared to the rough and dusty streets of the capital. Tucked away off a side road, lush vegetation and scattered farm houses line the dirt trail that leads to the still-under-construction entrance gate. As the van pulled up, all of the orphans dressed in their Sunday best greeted us with a chorus of songs, welcoming us into their homes. One bright teenager proudly led us through each of the houses in the compound, showing us where each child sleeps, the cabinets where they keep their clothes, and the common area where they share meals and study. She did not fail to mention that the boys’ living quarters are always messier than the girls’.
Each house is equipped with a running toilet and kitchen, and a separate living quarter for the “house mother,” a full-time, live-in adult who looks after the children in each house. Many of the house mothers are widows or single mothers who can bring their own children to live with them in the orphanage in exchange for their work, a model used successfully by other orphanages in the region. They are responsible for the daily upkeep and order of their houses, and they take great pride in their maintenance. None of the children know exactly how old they are, so ages are approximations. The Foundation hosts one big birthday party for all the children in August, where they celebrate with cake and presents.
During my visit, I sat with Viera at the dining table in one of the compound’s newer buildings, discussing the orphanage’s origins. I could hear the children running around outside, playing with some of the toys the group had brought. In 2011, rising world food prices and shrinking supply brought severe famine to many countries in East Africa. Like many Europeans, Viera and her husband were blissfully unaware of the crisis. They had been planning a vacation to Israel. Then, a flyer raising money for victims of the famine caught their attention.
“We thought, what if we just cancel our vacation and go to East Africa and help there?” she said. “We of course didn’t know anyone there, or anything about Africa, but we thought to ask the organization that was passing around the flyer to put us in touch with whoever they knew on the ground.”
When they arrived, they visited one of the local organizations attempting to support children in need. Viera continued with her story, the passion and dedication she has for her Foundation and the children they foster apparent in each word.
“There was one place specifically where we entered and it was…” Viera paused, controlling the surge of emotions that came with the recollection. “I can’t even call it an orphanage.”
Viera described what passed for an orphanage—a run-down house rented by a school teacher and his wife that provided minimal care to as many children as possible. “They were not able to send them to school or anything,” she said. “They just had a possibility of a place to stay at night.”
This chance encounter with the school teacher and his wife running a bare-bones orphanage for street children proved to be fateful. Upon entering the house, Hannes was overwhelmed by the level of poverty around him. The children’s distended bellies and visibly infected skin were a signal of the dire absence of sufficient medical care and food. In that instant, Hannes realized that he and his wife faced a fight-or-flight moment. “As soon as I stepped into the orphanage, I looked at my wife, horrified by the realities we saw around us,” he said. “I knew if we didn’t leave then, we would be committing our lives to helping these children. ‘Let’s just give them $1,000 and get out of here,’ I said.”
But Viera wouldn’t have it. “It’s too late,” she said. In that moment, they decided to make the orphaned children of Uganda a cornerstone of their life’s work.
They found a local doctor who came to treat the children’s various ailments, and made a deal with the local water company to reconnect the house to the water supply. They went to the local store and bought enough food for three months. They also visited several other orphanages for comparison. To their relief, they were better managed. So they focused their assistance on that one that was most in need. After three weeks, they returned to Europe to determine the path forward. Viera and Hannes knew it would be impossible to continue with their former life. Viera, then a successful management consultant, completed her ongoing projects then let her employees go. She planned to completely dedicate herself to the launch and operation of the Foundation.
Hannes began making plans, too. “I sat down with my computer and said, ‘Okay, let’s plan this whole thing out,’” he remembered. He began to speak to colleagues and friends about what they had witnessed in Uganda, and people began to offer financial support for their efforts.
In 2012, the couple bought land out in the countryside and started to build proper facilities. Today, the orphanage houses 44 children, with plans to expand its capacity to 360 over the coming years.
Stay tuned for Part II of Daniel’s experience helping Viera, Hannes and Good Future and Hope Foundation, along with the SAP Social Sabbatical team, better the lives of Ugandan orphans.