We had been driving for an hour en route to Abetavu, Uganda, when the first thing I notice as we near the village are several signs near the school which read: Do Not Accept Gifts for Sex.
What saddens me even further is that the school is for girls under the age of ten.
This was my introduction to the harsh reality that Carli Travers and her husband Robert deal with every day – and the motivation that led them to adopt 17 of the 21 children who now share their home in Uganda. It was also the reason why ElderTreks decided to help this family, and why I was so looking forward to finally meeting them in person.
As we reach Carli's security gate, we are greeted by many dogs, which I later learn are there for protection: there has been a recent influx of attacks towards them by people in the community, mostly men, angry that she has taken a stand for the wives and children in the community. Hard to imagine, but then, it has become clear this is a very different world.
A few moments later, Carli appears holding a newborn in her arms. The child was born in January - the result of a father raping his 13 year old daughter. Unmarried and pregnant, and therefore no longer worthy of a high bride price, the girl carries the blame for bringing shame to her family, and was thrown out by the same father who had raped her.
The daughter and baby are now both part of Carli and Robert’s every-growing family, making Carli a grandmother of sorts before she is even 30. But despite bringing this young girl and baby under her protection, Carli is still worried. The girl wants to go to school once the baby is older, but having known nothing but sexual abuse from the age of 4, she has no understanding of the difference between friendship and love.
I am reminded of the signs I first noticed in the village.
But not all our visit is as troubling. We sit and play with a few of the boys who are so excited to see visitors. They want to know if we are going to stay and if not, when we will come back to play.
They show us their pet turtle and monkey. It seems the kids have an art for bringing home whatever wild animals they find.
Walking around their property, we tour their garden, new bore hole, pigs and Robert's new game room. He tries to use it as an extra source of income and charges the locals 1000 Uganda Shillings (50 cents) to watch soccer matches.
As more children return from school, we are greeting warmly by them. I ask Robert and Carli how they do it, and their response was simply, ‘we make it work.” The kids are so thankful to have a life where they can actually be children, they all seem to just live happily together. Despite the hardships the kids have faced, they laugh and play together. You can feel the love they all share for one another. I watch as the older children care for the little ones. While not a biological family, you can feel the bond and joy they share.
At the end of our visit, Carli apologies for her being so tired and I laugh and think to myself, with 21 kids it is to be expected. She then proceeds to tell us she had spent the entire day before going between the hospital and the district police station to fight for a three year old girl who was raped by her father. She explains the worst part of the entire thing is that the police and father agree that it doesn't matter as the child was a "bastard".
Clearly, there is still much work to be done here, and as Carli thanks us for our donations and support, I can only think that it is us who should be thankful for people like her and Robert.