The children roam everywhere at Noel Orphanage, Rwanda’s largest institution for orphaned kids. They wander the grounds outside the main dormitories, opening random doors and kicking around broken toys on the ground. They run to strangers for hugs, tugging at hands and refusing to let go no matter what the staff say. They play and run around the ubiquitous laundry hanging from washlines and drying on grass.
I was at Noel to photograph for Hope and Homes for Children, a British charity partnered with the Rwandan government to close orphanages. Their goal is to reunite children with any living family members (aunts, cousins, etc.) or put kids in foster homes. It’s a delicate task and one that’s part of a worldwide trend of closing orphanages, as The Economist reported in August 2013. According to their story:
In order to close institutions governments must bolster the alternatives. Small homes housing around 12 children are better than huge ones, at least for those with no living relatives or very severe disabilities. Long-term carers work in those places, not a large staff on shifts. Mother-and-baby groups and day centres for struggling parents reduce the likelihood that youngsters will need government protection. When it is unavoidable, foster and adoptive care are the healthiest ways to supply it.
But that requires authorities to vet prospective parents, and to check up on them. This is difficult where social-care systems are poor. In countries such as the Czech Republic social workers are valued mainly for handing out benefit payments, rather than as mentors and monitors, says Ms Mulheir. Teachers and nurses who work in institutions sometimes resist reform.
During my visit to Noel, we started in the infant room, where the youngest baby was just a couple days old. Next we stepped into the courtyard and walked to a small room, where about 20 toddlers live, some of them still learning to walk and most still learning to talk. As soon as the little ones saw me, all of them started crawling and stumbling my way, crying out “Mama! Mama! Mama!” I just about lost it. Later, someone from Hope and Homes told me the children are taught to call all women “Mama” and all men “Daddy” or “Dada.” I’m still not clear why.
The main challenge on this shoot was not showing identifiable faces of any children in the orphanages. I’ve had a lot of experience with not showing faces such as filming an undocumented immigrant in the United States and photographing North Korean refugees in South Korea. But kids are more wiggly, and there were so many of them, and a lot of them wanted to play, and who can resist playing even a little bit with a playful kid? The best part of this shoot was photographing children who have been reunited with their families or put in what appear to be loving foster homes. The children seemed genuinely happy and truly loved by their families. I hope this will be the case for all kids being moved out of closed orphanages.