In this series, The Orange County Register’s Faith and Values columnist and ONE Mom Cathleen Falsani shares stories from her recent trip to Africa with ONE. In Day 5, Cathleen visits Kasisi Children’s Home, an orphanage in Lusaka, Zambia, that operates on a simple, powerful idea – kids grow when they are loved. This column originally appeared in The Orange County Register.
The Kasisi Children’s Home appears at the end of a dusty road, not far from Lusaka’s international airport, like an oasis. As our van pulls up to the front door of the tidy, sprawling compound, a Catholic nun clad in a white veil and a habit the color of the cloudless sky walks across the threshold into the blazing sun to greet us.
Photo caption: A Zambian nun from the Roman Catholic order of the Little Servants of Mary Immaculate holds a baby boy in the courtyard of the Kasisi Children’s Home in Lusaka, Zambia. Photo credit: Vasco Possley/OC Register.
This is Sister Mariola, director of the children’s home founded in 1926 by Dominican nuns and run, since 1928, by members of her Polish order, the Little Servants of Mary Immaculate. Kasisi is the largest and best-known orphanage in all of Zambia. It is also the most extraordinary home for orphaned children I’ve ever visited, in Africa or anywhere else.
Kasisi is home to 230 children – from infants to young adults – of whom 60 are HIV-positive. The children come to Kasisi from across Zambia. Some are brought to the kindly nuns by the Social Welfare Society, police victim support units, refugee centers, hospitals, various communities, and from the streets.
Photo caption: Cathleen holds a toddler, one of 230 children who live at the Kasisi Children’s Home. Photo credit: Vasco Possley.
The day before our visit the sisters had received three new children – all of them infants. Kasisi, which is supported entirely by private donations, has welcomed orphans as young as a day old. Once at the home the children may stay for the rest of their lives, if they so choose. Currently, several Kasisi children are university students attending schools in Zambia and abroad.
Kasisi has a beautiful, well-staffed, immaculately clean facility festooned by artwork – including many murals – created by the children themselves. (The orphanage has an ongoing program that brings professional artists in to work with the children, many of whom are blessed with natural artistic talent, Sister Mariola told us with a familiar mother’s pride.)
Bougainvillea tumbles over walls like magenta water while the scents of orange blossom and jasmine fill the air. There are expansive gardens and orchards where the sisters raise much of the food consumed at the home.
But what makes Kasisi extraordinary, at least to my eye and experience, is the palpable love that fills the place. This is no sterile institution where children are warehoused. It is a home where they are showered with love.
Photo caption: Cathleen shakes hands with the little girl who almost knocked her off her feet when she ran from the playground and hugged her around the knees at the Kasisi Children’s Home. Photo credit: Vasco Possley.
Sister Mariola, whom the children call “Mamusia” (meaning “Mommy” in Polish), exudes a warmth and tenderness that I wanted to wrap around me like a blanket.
Photo caption: Children stand with Sister Mariola, director of Kasisi. Photo credit: Iris Bourne/irisbourne.com.
As we turn a corner and approach a group of school-age children who have assembled to sing for their visitors, a few of the younger kids break rank and run to Mamusia, embracing her around the waist and hanging on her skirt.
She smiles, pulling them to her. The children are obviously healthy and well-cared for – a group playing in a courtyard is chubby-cheeked and bright-eyed. When we later ask how old they are, Mamusia tells us they are 3- and 4-year-olds, as I would have guessed. They are not stunted for their age, as so many children I’ve encountered in this part of the world where malnourishment remains a serious problem tend to be.
The children at Kasisi are healthy because they receive ample nutrition and health care.
But they are happy because they are loved.
In addition to Mamusia, six other Polish nuns (including identical twin sisters Maria and Janina whose sky-blue eyes match their habits), eight Zambian nuns, and 50 house mothers lavish the children in their care with love, affection and affirmation.
A sign near the wing where infants and toddlers reside says: “To all Mommies, talk to the babies all the time even if they don’t answer.”
Photo credit: Vasco Possley.
Mamusia and the other sisters know each child by name. They know their story. They know their personality, their habits, their joys and their fears. About half of the children on the campus are eligible for adoption as they have no surviving family members.
The morning of our visit to Kasisi, part of our small delegation from the ONE Campaign met with Mark Storella, the US Ambassador to Zambia. We talked about the progress that has been (and continues to be) made in Zambia to combat HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases with the help of foreign aid, including the United States’ PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief) program.
Toward the end of our conversation, Storella mentioned that Zambia had recently completed the process to ratify The Hague Conventions, which standardize international laws and provide a set legal framework for international adoption of children. While I’ve not seen that news reported anywhere else, if I understood the ambassador correctly, it means American families and others may find the adoption process in Zambia easier than it’s been in the past.
As an adoptive mother myself, this is wonderful news. There are millions of children all over the world who need forever families, even if they are blessed enough to be reared and protected by loving caregivers such as Mamusia and the sisters at Kasisi.
My son, Vasco, was born in Malawi, orphaned at a young age, and ended up living alone on the streets of Blantyre for a time, joined our family via adoption in 2010. There is ample debate about whether orphaned children are better off staying in their countries of origin or being adopted into families from the United States and elsewhere.
Our family debated that, too. There are pros and cons. The debate rages on. …
But here’s the one true thing about which I am certain: Children need to know they are loved.
Even in the most dire of circumstances, if a child knows he is loved, that’s nine-tenths of the battle. Food, medical care and shelter help. But without love even the most privileged child on the planet is poor and vulnerable.
Photo caption: A group of 3- and 4-year-old children wave to the photographer, Cathleen’s son, Vasco Possley.
Just before we arrived at Kasisi, we toured a campus in one of the poorest sections of the city where a faith-based organization, with help from PEPFAR and other foreign aid, operates a school for hundreds of orphans and vulnerable children – many of them HIV-positive. They also run an educational program for parents.
Esther Mkandawire, director of the education program, said volunteers who make home visits to talk to parents begin by telling them they need to tell their children they are loved.
It’s not part of their culture to do so, she said. But if children don’t know their parents love them – if they never hear it at home – they are vulnerable to being exploited by the first man or woman who says “I love you,” that they’re beautiful, special, precious, she said.
“Some people, all they need is encouragement and to feel love,” Mkandawire said, “and they will begin to be healed.”
On our tour of the Kasisi campus, Mamusia, flanked by the witty and mischievous twins — Sisters Maria and Janina – stopped before entering a building we’d not yet seen. She turned and announced, “This is the most important building here.”
Then she swung open the wooden door to reveal the home’s chapel. Smiling, Mamusia knelt at the back of the room, made the sign of the cross, and prayed silently for a minute or two. When she arose, she whispered to me, “This is where we come to recharge our batteries.”
Her simple, humble words moved me to tears. The children at Kasisi know they are loved by the women who care for them; faithful women whose mission in life is to heap love on orphans because they know God first loved them, and to their creator, each child – every single one of us – is a precious son or daughter of God.
Mamusia didn’t need to say that in words.
Her love speaks volumes.
Children at Kasisi Children’s Home sing for the camera: