It takes an entire day, and costs a small fortune, for Florence Babirye to get from her home in the ugandan village of Kasolwe to the Kayunga police station. First there’s a motorbike taxi from the village to the nearest bus stop, then a bus to Kamuli town, a Nile crossing by ferry, and a long walk. At the police station, she inquires again about her daughter, and her niece and nephew, who have been taken away to America. But the answer she gets is always the same: The children are no longer yours.
In her picturesque village, where chickens scratch among the flower beds and generations live side by side, Florence shared the responsibility for bringing up her kids with her sisters, Jenipher Rubuga and Mariam Nakiranda; extended families tend to be very involved in raising children in Uganda. The three sisters had a total of 16 kids, who moved freely between their homes in neighboring villages. But in 2012, Mariam’s husband died, and she moved to work in the town of Mpunge, in Mukono district, several hours away by bus. Florence’s long hours at a restaurant made it difficult to look after her 4-year-old daughter, Rose Patience, so when Mariam offered to take her in, Florence readily agreed.
When Rose first went to stay with Mariam, Florence didn’t own a phone, so she kept tabs on her daughter via friends and relatives. Through this grapevine, Florence heard that Mariam had met a pastor who said he could find a sponsor to cover Rose’s fees at a boarding school where he served as a director. The three sisters had often talked about wanting a better education for their children. Once she heard about her sister’s decision, Jenipher decided to entrust her two toddlers, Fatiya and Kirya, to Mariam so they could be educated, too.
At first, Florence and Jenipher were happy with the arrangement: With only their older children to look after, they could work the hours they needed. They believed that their three little ones had been placed at a boarding school in Entebbe, an hour from the Ugandan capital of Kampala. It seemed like a stroke of luck.
But as the months passed with no word from their kids, Florence and Jenipher grew worried. Finally, after more than a year, the two sisters decided to go find their children. Although bus fare was normally prohibitively expensive for Florence, she and Jenipher made the trip to Mpunge and confronted Mariam, who refused to answer their questions. Instead, she gave them the phone number for the pastor, Rashid Luswa Kisegerwa. What the sisters soon discovered was that he was the director not of a boarding school, but of an orphanage called Bethel House. When Florence called Pastor Rashid, he told her, “Those kids are no longer yours; you ask Mariam about them,” and hung up the phone. She called back and was passed on to Kisegerwa’s wife, who called Florence stupid and shouted at her to “stop bothering us.”