MEET A 10-YEAR-OLD GIRL WHO RAISED FIVE SIBLINGS FOR SEVEN MONTHS

By Jessica Sabano
Children run happily across the compound. Some of them link hands across each other’s shoulders and jump about in a circle, singing to a rhyme. Three siblings, Rebecca Bukirwa,10, Scovia Nawenja,7, and Ibrahim Katuma,6, join them. A fourth sibling Sarah Namagembe, 4, sits on the verandah, looking aloof.
“They are used to the place and have made friends. When they arrived, they used to stick to themselves but now they are able to mix with other children since children here play according to age groups,” Christine Kajumba says, as she watches them.

Kajumba, the probation officer in charge of Naguru Reception Centre, where we are visiting, says the first time she saw these four children physically was when Mukono Probation Office brought them to the centre. She had previously seen them on TV but did not know their names.
“When I talked to the eldest girl, Bukirwa, and she said she was from Mukono, I straight away figured they were the children that had featured on NTV,” Kajumba recollects.
The reason the children had been on the NTV news segment was because of their plight.
Six siblings were left to fend for themselves for seven months, before someone decided they were better off being taken care of. A young girl found herself having to be a mother and father to her siblings at the age of 10 because their father abandoned them.
Imagine you are 10 years old and the head of a family of five, a pupil at school, and with no recognisable source of the basic needs such as food, medicine and clothes. How would you be able to get your family to survive?
That was the situation of Bukirwa, formerly a resident of Kirangira village, Mukono municipality, having lost her mother in an accident and abandoned by her father who is said to be in Koome Islands in Lake Victoria.
At their home
When we first met her at their home in Mukono, before she and her siblings were taken to Naguru Reception Centre, the calm and stoic Bukirwa said their troubles began when their mother, Rose Nabulime passed on in an accident in October, 2015.
Before that, Bukirwa says life was pleasant.
“Food and tea was always available. Whenever one of us was sick, our mother would look for medicine and treat us. She would also tell us stories and sing for us beautiful songs when she had time,” Bukirwa says, adding that her mother used to sell boiled cow heads and sell secondhand clothes for a living. “When our mother died, these went with her. Life became hard for us.”
Their mother hailed from Mubende District and that is where she was buried. After the burial, they came back home with their father Derrick Mulimira. Two weeks later, Bukirwa says, he left for Koome Islands.
The children waited and waited but he did not return, so the task to run the family fell on the oldest. Bukirwa had to become a parent to her siblings; Nawenja, seven; Katuma, six; Namagembe, four; Derrick Smart Mawejje, one-and-a-half; and Margaret Kirabo, who was just a few months old then.
Even with such a burden on her shoulders, when we met her at her home in Mukono, Bukirwa did not look worried and seemed comfortable looking after her siblings.
Richard Mangeni, a neighbour and friend to Mulimira, said he was left in charge of the children. According to him, Mulimira abandoned his home for Koome Island after realising there were no jobs in Mukono.
Mangeni, Bukirwa says, would talk to her father and after, tell them, “Greetings from your father.”
Mangeni also tried to provide as much as he could for the children while they were still living by themselves. “I provide for the children and there is nothing wrong with them. I buy for them variety of foods; posho, millet and mukene,” he said when asked.
However, we visited the children’s home. The windows had no shutters, the kitchen was flooded because it had rained the previous day and the children had nowhere to cook from.
The pit latrine was in a terrible state. Worse still, they stayed by themselves in the house and the door was loose and did not lock. The children spent the nights in fear that somebody or animals would enter the house and harm them.
The food situation was not rosy either. Bukirwa said they survived on porridge from the school they attended and if it was not for the mercy of the head teacher, she does not know what she would have done.
“When our father had just left, we used to receive milk to feed the baby but the supplier [a neighbour] stopped because we had no money to pay. We would find a hard time when we go to his home and find only the woman [his wife]. She would tell us to wait for Mangeni [who would sometimes pay the bill] and also tell us that we should learn to bear with the situation since our mother died.”
Bukirwa says when they did not find Mangeni at his home, they would go without food.
Surviving at all costs
Taking care of the children’s meals was not the only thing Bukirwa had to do. She had many other responsibilities to juggle.
Every day, she woke up early, bathed her siblings and packed changing clothes for the youngest two children whom she went with to school. She would carry the seven-month-old while Nawenja carried the one-and-a-half year old. They usually left without any breakfast.
When they got to school, they would be given porridge and Bukirwa would feed the baby and the others before dashing off to class. She would leave the baby under the shade, near the kitchen so that when she cried, the cook could easily alert her from class. Whenever she heard the little ones crying, she would go to check on them.
Sometimes they cried when their panties were wet, so she would rush to bathe them and change their clothes, give them porridge or food provided by the school, leave them lying on a mat or playing, and go back to class.
During break and lunch time, Bukirwa always went to sit with her siblings and feed or play with them.
When they left school after class, they would go back home where she would take them to a neighbour only known as Nalongo and run to fetch water. She would go with a 20-litre jerrycan but carry only 10 litres since she could not manage to climb the hill from the well with a full jerrycan. When she returned, she would pick the children from Nalongo, bathe them, and prepare supper. They would then go to bed.
Once, red ants invaded the house and they went to Nalongo’s home who was kind enough to give them accommodation for that night and help them spray their house the following day.
When any of the children fell sick, Bukirwa says she would go to Mangeni who would give her some money for transport to Mukono Health Centre IV. He would also advise her to take them for immunisation.
Studious Bukirwa
Despite these hardships, Bukirwa was known to be a studious girl. One of the class teachers in her former school, Gudra Namutai says before the siblings began attending and being provided for by the school, Bukirwa hid them behind the classrooms or sometimes in a nearby bush. But then she told someone about their plight.
“One day she approached me in the compound with her siblings, greeted me told me their plight and she showed interest in studying,” Namutai says.
The head teacher gave Bukirwa and her siblings an opportunity to study for free plus school requirements.
The head teacher who prefers anonymity, says they tried to contact the father of the children after seeing the miserable conditions they lived in but his response was disappointing.
“We got the father’s phone number and called him but when he came to school, he said the children are old enough to stay by themselves as he is too busy at the island.”
Where is their father?
After making several phone calls to Derrick Mulimira (pictured), that went unanswered, I decided on May 19, to go with Sylvester Ssemugenyi, a human rights officer at the Centre for information and Research to Koome Island. The only means of transport is by wooden canoe.
From Kasenyi landing site in Entebbe, the journey to the rocky island, Kiimi Kachanga landing site takes one hour.
When we arrived, the LC1 chairman, Gerald Kizza introduced us to the defence secretary Robert Kinaalwa after identifying us on our quest for Mulimira, a man reported to have neglected six children in Mukono.
Kizza said he had no knowledge about the person we were looking for since he had not heard of such a person, neither was his name recorded in the chairperson’s documents.
“Usually, each person who comes here is recorded in my books. If his name isn’t in the book, he might have changed names after coming here, if not he might have gone to a different island,” Kizza told us. Kizza said that most of the people who migrate to the distant islands change names since many are either wrong doers or want to start up a new life after failing on the mainland.
The next day, the area chairperson led us to a fishing village where we interacted with different people in quest for Mulimira, until midday. After failing to locate him, we sailed back to Kasenyi.
I rang Mulimira who answered my phone call. I visited a week later, Mulimira did not pick his phone and efforts to meet him failed. After, he called requesting that we meet at Kasenyi Landing site the next weekend. He still did not turn up and his phone was off. I gave up.
Because they lacked food especially during the holiday and public holidays, the children would go to people’s gardens and get raw cassava to eat which led to residents complaining about them. It was at this point that the head teacher decided something had to be done to help the children.
“I was concerned and reported the matter to probation office at Mukono police. The decision was then taken to take the children to a better place. On April 13, of the probation office picked the children up from their home. The probation officer Mukono, James Apollo Ntege said the children were split up and taken to two different centres.
“Those below five years were taken to Heart of a Child Babies’ Home, Namakwa in Nakisunga Sub-county Mukono District, and those above five were taken to Naguru Reception Centre,” he said.
They could not be taken to the same home because Naguru does not accommodate children below five while Heart of Child does not accommodate children above five years.
Going for better
Bukirwa, Nawenja and Katuma are now studying at St Jude Primary School and their teachers say they are doing well, although Bukirwa seemed absentminded in the beginning. Namagembe is in preschool.
Sarah Nagayi, the children’s guardian at the centre also states, “They adapted to the place quickly, Bukirwa was very active and was still taking care of her siblings.”
When we meet them in the administrator’s office, they are glowing from the petroleum jelly on the faces. When asked, Bukirwa says she does not know their father’s whereabouts but says when he was leaving, he said he was going to the island.
“He used to come home once in a while to see us and bring us fish, sugar, soap and salt, and then head back. While at our former school, Uncle Richard used to receive school fees from him and pay for us,” Bukirwa recalls, while pushing a comb through her thick, black hair.
“Here, it is better than home. They give us food, snacks, clothes and shoes. We are also able to walk to school daily. I love my school,” she says smiling and playing with her fingers. Bukirwa says she wants to be a doctor.
The other three children keep looking at Bukirwa, expecting her to talk on their behalf, which she gladly does.
“I’m in Primary Three, Nawenja is in Primary Two, Katumwa is in Primary One, and Namagembe stays at the centre for preschool. She is taught by her nursery teacher,” she explains.
The two younger children Kirabo, and Mawejje, now 10 months, and two years respectively, are adjusting to their new home, at Heart of a Child, located 10 km off Katosi Road in Mukono District
Jakisa Indiana Opio, an assistant administrator at the home, says the children were brought to them on April, 15, 2016.
“When the nurse here examined them, Kirabo looked malnourished. Also, she had a bacterial infection probably from the dirt that she was eating,” Opio says, adding that she only started to improve recently in July. Mawejje who comes off as shy on the other hand was not in such an unhealthy state as his sister.
“Derrick has been fine. He feeds well and is very close to his nanny,” Opio explains.
What does the future hold?
“We do not like the fact that these six siblings are separated. It is for this reason our social worker is currently holding talks with the administration at the reception centre to see if it is possible to have these two children join their siblings ,” Opio says.
If this is not possible, Opio concludes that they will stay at the centre until they think of the next plan.
Kajumba at Naguru, says it is government policy for children to grow up in families and not institutions because they need more than just food and care.
She says several relatives to the children have gone to the centre asking to see them and others claiming custody. Among them was their uncle who was willing to take care of them and they were willing to go with him. He however has to be authorised by local authorities.
“During the process to grant him custody, on two occasions, their uncle went to the probation office in Mukono reeking of alcohol as early as 10am. The officers were reluctant to hand over the children to him. We shall therefore, visit the other relatives during holidays and establish how they are living to find a potential guardian for them,” she says.
What Bukirwa thinks
Bukirwa says she understands that the two younger ones are too young to be with them and are perhaps best placed where they are. But it is clear that her hope is that they will at some point be united and grow up together. Having taken care of them for seven months, it is perhaps Bukirwa’s hope that one day, all “her children” will be under her wings again.
Additional information by Eseri Watsemwa and Esther Olukaand Henry Lubulwa
SOURCE: DAILY MONITOR/MAGAZINE