This post draws on a recent article in the FT Weekend magazine by Gillian Tett, Why orphanages are best left in fiction, that picks up on what appears, at first, to be counter-intuitive campaigning by JK Rowling against orphanages.
JK Rowling’s premise (as I understand it from the article) is that well-meaning westerners have given money for orphanages that do more harm than good. Children lose family ties and too many orphanages promote or facilitate abuse, neglect and trafficking of the children in their care.
As I read the article, I remembered a young boy I met in a village in Tigray province, in northern Ethiopia, not far from the border with Eritrea.
My best guess is that he was about ten years old, although he had the air of someone used to fending for themselves – not in a beating-the bullies-in-the-playground sense; more about getting himself up in the morning and to bed at night. He was the only surviving member of his family and he lived, by himself, in the family home in the centre of the village.
However, other families in the village made sure he was fed and kept an eye on him. The women took it in turns to make extra food so he wouldn’t go hungry. And this was in a village where nobody had a great deal. There were no shops, food was grown in the fields around the village and I dread to think how long it would take – on foot – to reach the nearest market.
But this boy was part of the community and he was cared for.
I’m not sure anyone in that village would have known about orphanages or understood the concept. Philanthropy is a very long way from this part of Tigray, in spite of Live Aid, Band Aid and the like.
Like other western travellers who stopped at the village to explore millennia-old archaeological remains, I gave money towards food and clothing for the boy. And I wondered what would happen to a boy like that in more “advanced” societies.