Most of us gasp in sympathy when we hear of women having twins or triplets. Yes, we might want babies, but ideally one at a time – with just the right gap before a sibling comes along.
Our Western approach to motherhood has developed through both choice and necessity, and we’re having fewer children than ever before. We have increased access to contraceptives, we can choose to prioritise our careers instead, and we may be caring for ageing parents and therefore having another child doesn’t seem practical or financially possible. The spiralling cost of living may have also influenced our decisions to keep our families small. It was little surprise when the Office for National Statistics revealed that 2017 saw the lowest birth rate in England and Wales in a decade.
Becoming a parent in the UK is typically something we hope will be controlled, well thought-out and devoid of surprises. We have the luxury of choice, with the number of women opting to freeze their eggs tripling between 2009 and 2014.
But for mothers in rural Kenya – a country with an estimated three million orphans and the fourth largest HIV epidemic in the world – the duty of care they feel towards their nation’s abandoned children overrides that freedom. A few miles from the country’s fifth largest city, Eldoret, is a village where women feel called to play their part in raising the orphaned population.
Emmy Nyangasi has three biological children, aged 16, 14 and 12, but since 2009 she’s cared for 18 children at any one time. With her husband Tom, she’s employed by Open Arms Village as a house parent in a children’s home called Ushindi – meaning 'victory' in Swahili.
"It wasn’t easy at the beginning. The other children would run to me for a hug, which confused my own children and made them cry," says 38-year-old Emmy. "Bonding was difficult – I couldn’t remember all their names and needed a sharp memory. But it was my duty to be the parent they had never known.
"It took two years before we felt like a family. Now you wouldn’t know which are my biological children, as they’re loved equally. I love waking up and hearing them say 'Good morning, Mummy'."
Nine children’s homes, a baby home, school, clinic and offices comprise the purpose-built village. More than 150 children are given a home, family and education, mostly funded by external sponsorship.
Joseph* was found abandoned at a school when he was around 8 months old. He was taken to hospital with deep marks on his neck and a cut on his ear, probably a result of attempted strangulation. Once his wounds healed, he was committed to the care of Open Arms and, seven years on, is thriving.
Siblings Isaac* and Mercy* were abandoned and went to live with their alcoholic grandmother. She neglected to feed them and the children found comfort in a puppy, sleeping in its bed and sharing what little food they had with it. They were discovered here before being brought to Open Arms.
Sarah Maswai has been a house parent since 2010 and previously ran a primary school with her husband Paul, a pastor. She believes that, despite their hardships, love and faith can transform abused children.
"They have been exposed to a different kind of life," says 50-year-old Sarah. "At first nothing could penetrate their hearts and it was hard to build a relationship. But by demonstrating our love, and the love of God, we are able to change their attitudes to life."
Most of the children were abandoned as babies, often left for dead in cowsheds. Stigma brings many children to the village, because those born through sexual assault or incest, and those who have been sexually abused, are alienated by their community.
Babies face a number of health issues related to being abandoned in the cold. Many have pneumonia and other respiratory infections, as well as HIV-related illnesses, diabetes and sickle cell anaemia. In addition to her role as a parent, Emmy takes children for hospital appointments and ensures each child has the correct medication.
In the UK these babies might be taken into the care of the authorities or adopted, but there is no such infrastructure in Kenya – and if there were, it’s unlikely it could meet the demand. There are temporary refuge homes and remand centres (essentially a children’s prison), but Open Arms is one of the few places where children are raised in a family unit.
Emmy’s family once lived in poverty and she recalls feeding her children raw sweet potatoes when they couldn’t afford to cook. This suffering, she believes, helped to prepare her for her current role.
"It might sound upsetting, but at one time in our lives, going three days without a meal was normal," she explains. "Because of our difficult past, the children know we understand what they’ve been through.
"Looking after children is where I am meant to be. You couldn’t do this role unless it was your calling in life. In the past, me and Tom were desperate to help street children and wanted to adopt two orphans, but didn’t have the space or the finances. Now we’re parents to so many. When I’m asked outside the village if they are my children, I answer yes without a second thought."
House parents are usually over the age of 30 when hired, with no more than three biological children. Couples undergo a rigorous interview process to ensure they’re right for the role. They also work a 'trial weekend', interacting with children and doing chores.
Help is available for cleaning and cooking for such large numbers, with around 100 employees working in the village. Nine couples work as house parents, alongside cooks, teachers, counsellors, agricultural staff, housekeeping and management. The children have their own daily chores, such as sweeping or washing clothes.
The homes are single-storey, stone buildings with solar-powered heating. Each house has a communal living space and bedrooms with bunk beds. House parents work six days a week and have one weekend off per month, when they can leave the village and visit friends and family.
Despite the traumatic start to life experienced by Open Arms children, the house parents have great hopes for their futures.
"We are raising these children to change Africa, one life at a time," says Emmy. "I see leaders in our children. One day this country will have a president who grew up in Open Arms Village. It’s a great honour to know I am helping to raise not just this generation, but also impacting their children and grandchildren."
"I really care about their futures," adds Sarah. "The local community depends on them. I want them to dream big and work hard, but my greatest joy is when a child tells me they wish to forgive their parents for abandoning them."
*The names of orphaned children have been changed