A number of begging mothers on Kampala streets have lost their children without a trace, and many are in a relentless search for their offspring
Open trenches of slow-flowing black sewage, form the boundary separating a small enclave that most of the Karimojong in Katwe, Kampala, call home, from other Ugandans.
In the settlement about the size of a football pitch off the railway line, clouds of smoke rise from different points as a sea of humanity get along with their business. A man and woman pull each other as a small group gathers to observe what is happening.
Some women sort beans picked from leftovers in the market, others are sorting what looks like a carcass of an animal. In another scene, some men are making mousetraps using wires from used car tyres. One enthusiastically offers to show me how it works. I decline the kind gesture.
Seen from a distance, the settlement looks like a concentration camp, only that there is no military presence to compel people to stay there against their will.
It is the only option they have and “house” rent here is around Shs 500 per day compared at Shs 1,000 per day in Kisenyi. The majority, mainly men, are drinking all tribes of alcohol with music blaring from the background.
Bustling with activity
My arrival raises eyebrows and some people start following me, offering whatever they have to sell. Others ask for money. But I am here to talk about missing children. The stories start flowing in.
Lomayang Napeyok disappeared when she was about two years old. It is more than 10 years now and her mother and relatives still hope they will see her alive again.
Napeyok was picked up by law enforcement officers of the defunct Kampala City Council (KCC) from Wandegeya where she had been deployed to beg alongside other children.
Her auntie, Margret Lokurre, remembers the incident like it was yesterday. “That day, they picked up many children,” the mother of three, who survives mainly by begging on the streets of Kampala, says.
Many of the other children picked with Napeyok were found in different government-run and privately owned facilities for children. Not Napeyok.
Her mother, Alice Nachwo, on learning that Napeyok had been taken, launched a manhunt in the places others had been found and more. They checked at police stations, searched at Naguru Children remand home, and at the reception center, Masuliita, Kampiringisa and any other place they thought she could have been taken. All efforts were in vain.
At Naguru, for example, all the children at the facility were paraded but Nachwo and her relatives did not find their kin.
Ms Lokurre, who I traced in the Karimojong settlement located in Katenda Zone, Katwe-Kinyoro, says they consulted witch doctors for answers. First, they went to one in Kisenyi, then back home in Napak District. No answers were forthcoming.
Nachwo’s frustration turned into anger. She packed the little she had and returned to Napak. “I have hope; my sister also has hope that one day we shall find her,” she says.
We failed to trace Nachwo and others in Napak and Moroto where they are said to have relocated. She, like other Karimojong women who have lost their children, has no mobile phone and given the language barrier, communicating to them is all but easy.
We ask Lokurre whether her sister envisages Napeyok dead. “No,” she answers. Can she tell who the child is today, 10 years later?
“Mothers have a way of telling,” Lokurre says through an interpreter, lifting her right breast up and wiping her nose at the same time. “We can still tell who she is.”
Lokurre is a mother of three and through the begging and other odd jobs, she supports them.
The story of a Karimojong child vanishing off the streets of Kampala, to never be seen again is all too common in the community yet the members are seemingly resigned to the fact that nobody, not even the authorities, cares.
When a child disappears or is picked off the streets by the authorities, a search is mounted by members of the community, but if he or she – the cases of those disappearing are mainly girls — is not found in a month or at most a year, the community moves on and the mother, too, is expected to do the same.
And that is the likely fate of little Maria Nakiru who disappeared almost four years ago, in 2014.
“We think the child was stolen by someone,” Agnes Namilo, the child’s mother says. After she reported the case to police, and a search mounted, Namilo, who begs on the stretch from Clock Tower to Nsambya turned to witch doctors who took the little she had.
“Both the witch doctors here [Kampala] and back in the village told us the child was taken to be sacrificed and that she was killed,” she says. They advised her to stop looking. If other families have any hope, then Namilo’s is completely gone.
The stench from where the meeting between this reporter and Namilo meet is unbearable. Behind Namilo, who is seated on a stool, are two children, a year or two old, sharing a left over meal of posho and greens.
The reporter requests Namilo to have her photo taken at the Monitor offices which are about 3km away. She crawls into her shelter and puts on her Sunday best, a snow white dress. She then dashes to wash her feet.
“My heart will never rest but I have now given up. I hope you will help me find my child,” Namilo says, spreading her arms wide.
The question of whether these mothers will get any answers is put to Benon Kigenyi, the acting permanent secretary at the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.
“No, they don’t have an answer,” Mr Kigenyi says.
He, however, advises the mothers who have lost their children in operations on the streets to seek answers from Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), which he says may not know the names of the lost children but can tell from records where they are.
“The Karamoja question is more than meets the eye. Those people are not being fair to anyone in the system. If a proper follow-up is not made, some of those children, the infants, lose identity and get other names. I don’t think anybody takes the children. They get pseudonyms until they are given new names,” Mr Kigenyi says.
Two-year old Maria Shege disappeared after she was picked from the streets three years ago and is said to have been taken to Kampirigisa. Her mother, Agnes Abura visited her there often until one day when she went there and did not find her.
In an earlier interview, Mr Keem estimated that at least 15 children have been confirmed lost in the last few years in his area alone.
So what is the community’s leadership doing?
“So many children have disappeared here. Even in Natete we have a community there and we have the same problem. Every time we get an incident, we report to the police, use public address system to announce and sometimes announce on radio,” says Mathias Lemukol, a leader of the Karimojong in Katwe-Kinyoro.
Because some of the children taken are of a tender age, Lemukol says it is very easy for them to completely disappear and the constraints on their part worsen the problem. The mere fact that they are struggling to find what to eat implies that they are unable to muster transport to trace the whereabouts of the children.
The Karimojong leadership in Kampala also accuses some “balokole” (born-again) of picking some of the children off the streets in the name of helping them.
The worst is, however, children being stolen with the community suspecting that they are either trafficked for such things as organ transplants, or to be sold in the flourishing adoption enterprise.
Such is an incident of a child who was stolen from her mother in 2004. A woman turned up and convinced her mother that she was going to help them get a better life. She took them to Owino Market to buy “presentable” clothes and in the process of trotting the busy and packed market; the stranger disappeared with the child. To date she has never been seen again.
Francis Loware, the chairperson of the Karimojong community in Kakajo, Kisenyi II Parish, says the matter was reported at Owino police post and all they got was a reference number.
“She cried and cried for some time and after she went back to Napak,” he says. Without any investigations by the police and the reference number not traceable, the chance of this mother ever knowing what happened to her child is close to impossible.
The issue of removing children from the streets is for KCCA, says Kigenyi. The laws are as such. If they are underage – three years old or below, Kigenyi says then they are for the ministry of Gender. These children are taken to Naguru Reception Home.
However, he says, Naguru has limited space and works with recognised and registered homes that take over some of the cases, especially the healthy children. The others that need a lot of care, he says, are kept at the centre.
Kigenyi continues: “The older ones KCCA and any other urban authority many find other means. I know there is a partnership lately between KCCA and Masulita home. If the children are in conflict with the law, only then are they taken to a remand home pending their trial. If they are convicted they are taken to Kampiringisa National Rehabilitation Centre to serve out their sentences and after they are resettled.”
On the question of the Karimojong children disappearing after being picked off the streets, Kigenyi says the community knows what to do and usually follow up accordingly when their children are taken.
How do they disappear?
Some of the children made to beg on the streets are new and so they fail to find their way back to their parents. But where are they?
Lemukol says they have since learnt that when some children are taken to Masulita Children’s Village ran by the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO), they are passed over to other NGOs and they get lost in the system, making it hard for some of their poor parents to trace them.
Ideally, homes such as Masulita are supposed to be used as transit centres where the children are supposed to spend little time under rehabilitation and later get transferred to Kobulin Youth Centre in Napak District for further skills training.
One of the homes that was mentioned as the NGO where the children from places such as Kampiringisa National Rehabilitation Center are taken is Foodstep, founded by a Belgian couple –Nathalie and Werner Steurbaut – in 2006.
Besides having some children in their care, the NGO says it is “supporting all the children who are locked up in Kampiringisa.”
“All the children we have under our direct care, we know their families. Each child has a file and we work with a probation officer and (the) police,” Nathalie Steurbaut said in an interview.
She explained that all the children under their care go to school and have an opportunity to re-unite with their families.
But we have, for example, the National Gender policy, the Uganda Food and Nutrition policy, Orphans and Vulnerable Children Policy, the National Youth Policy, Elimination of Child Labour Policy, a policy on the handling of street children and the Internally Displaced Persons policy, to mention but a few and all these, ideally, are supposed to protect these vulnerable children from such things as going missing.
Uganda has also ratified International Human Rights instruments that have related articles on children, such as the protocol on the Rights of Children in armed conflict, the protocol on the creation of African courts on human and Peoples Rights and most importantly, the optional protocol to the convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of Children, Child prostitution and child Pornography. There have also been calls for the enactment of a national street children strategy, among others.
In 2011, the then minister of Karamoja Affairs, now Education minister and First Lady Janet Museveni, announced that before the end of August that year, street children and their mothers would have been removed from Kampala streets and transferred to a home.
The Observer, in an editorial titled “Hail the move on Karimojong street children,” welcomed the pronouncement.
Daily Monitor’s story on the day ran under the headline “First Lady to rid Kampala of street children.” Street children, especially originating from Karamoja, still fill up the streets.
Loware still insists the government has to address the issue: “This problem is the responsibility of government through the ministry of Gender. They should coordinate with us the leaders in the community to try and trace for the children, but also make sure the children don’t disappear in the future.”
One mother’s story
Missing child. In 2014, Agnes Namilo (pictured), as is common practice in this community, handed her daughter, Maria Nakiru, to a friend, a one Logiel who was heading to Namirembe Road opposite the new taxi park, to beg. On returning later, Logiel was in tears.
Betty Nachap, a younger sibling of Namilo who speaks Luganda, which she learnt while working as a house help, translates as Namilo, who is about eight months pregnant, explains.
Logiel, who lives opposite Namilo’s makeshift house built with old sacks and other such material, says she put the child on the busy street, as is common practice, but when she returned to monitor her, Nakiru was gone.
A search was mounted at Old Kampala police, KCCA, Naguru remand home and other places. It was in vain. The two friends resorted to fighting for some time, almost every day, until the community counselled them.
Reporting was supported by the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME)