“It was like he lived completely alone on an island” - Stephen Ucembe talks about leaving care

“It was like he lived completely alone on an island” - Stephen Ucembe talks about leaving care

Care To Practice’s Lucy Hillier spoke with member, Stephen Ucembe, about what it was like to grow up in care in Kenya and what he thinks are some of the key issues for young people transitioning out of care.

Stephen founded the Kenya Society of Care Leavers in 2009 to provide support to young people leaving institutional care. Stephen now works with Hope and Homes for Children as a Regional Advocacy Manager.  

Read Stephen’s interview.

LH: Stephen, can you tell us how you came to be working on children’s care issues and especially why you are so interested in those who are leaving care?

SU: My interest in this area of work comes from my own experience, as I grew up in a children’s care home in Nairobi, Kenya. When my mother died in 1989 myself and two other siblings went to live in a children’s home where about 200 children in total were being housed and cared for. I entered the children’s home when I was very young and I stayed there for nearly 15 years.

The home was like a warehouse full of children, we were sometimes 50 children to a dormitory and in those days children’s homes weren’t regulated in any way. There were only two caregivers for that whole dormitory.

I did actually have some other family relatives and even my father, who came to visit us at the home two years after we went there. But he was effectively chased away by threats from the social worker that we would not be able to stay there if he continued to visit.

There was hardly any individualised attention for us children, and whilst we formed some good friendships with other children, we did not have any strong personal relationships with the adult staff.

What was extremely hard was the way in which the young people were forced to move out of the children’s home once they were considered too old to stay there. A new manager arrived and decided that all the young people, some of whom were in their 20’s with physical or mental disabilities or other challenges, had to go “back” to their communities. The social workers did some family tracing in order to work out where they could be sent, but neither the young people nor the families or communities received any preparation or support. It was horrible as many of the families were more or less forced to take these young people back, and right back into the same circumstances that had led the children to being institutionalised in the first place. Later we saw lots of these same people begging in the streets.

LH: Could you tell us what your own experience was transitioning out of care?

SU: In 2003, I was 18 years old, I was given about US$100 and I then had to leave the children’s home. There was absolutely no support. Luckily I was given a lot of  help by a person who had worked in the home and who subsequently became a friend. He helped me get some basic accommodation and a few things for my room. I had also done well at school - I think I was the only one from the home who had - and I got a place at university to study social work. I did get a bit of help from the home in terms of trying to find sponsors for my studies but I really did struggle to learn to live independently. My friend even had to show me how to take a “matatu” to and from university, as I’d never taken public transport before. I also worked at the same children’s home until 3pm each day as a gardener and then went to my classes. It was an extremely difficult time in my life, which is still quite hard to think about, but I got my degree in social work after 4 years.

LH: What do you think are some of the key issues which need to be addressed for young people leaving care?

SU: My work experience, along with my own experiences, has taught me a lot about leaving care. After I graduated, I went back and worked in my former children’s home, as well as in a home for abandoned babies. I later became a case manager for children with disabilities, and I also worked with lots of children who grew up in care because of their HIV status.

One thing which is clear is that there still is a total lack of support for the most children leaving care, as well as for the communities where they go back and live.

In the case of children with disabilities, many children have found it more dangerous living back in their communities than in the children’s homes. This is because communities don’t understand the children’s particular disability, because they are stigmatised, and also because these care leavers might have limited or no access to specific services.

There is also a strong sense of stigma amongst care leavers themselves, who often try to hide their backgrounds. Equally the communities often stigmatise these care leavers, for instance by assuming that any local wrong doings must have been perpetrated by these young people who grew up in care. Ironically, those who do achieve good things are often glamourised by communities, who then ignore the fact that they might also need support and assistance.

Another big issue is that a sense of belonging and identity is missing for many children who grow up in care, and this has a serious impact on how a person gets on in life once they leave the home. Something which affected me personally was that I could not speak my “home” language, only Swahili, and this made me feel a bit like an alien in my own community. In fact there is a general sense amongst many young care leavers that they don’t fit into their communities, or that they are foreign, and many care leavers re-live a feeling of abandonment all over again when they are taken back to their communities. Communities in turn often perceive these children as foreign or outsiders.

There is still such a strong focus on addressing survival needs like shelter, food and education in children’s care settings that other equally important aspects of a child’s and young person’s life are completely ignored. For instance, the home where I grew up is now considered to be the best in Kenya - the children have hot showers and eat chicken for dinner - but the need for a sense belonging and of “social connectedness” is still not considered important.  For example, I had friend who is a care leaver who had a lot of problems but had no one to turn to. His other care leaver friends couldn’t really help him and he didn’t know an adult who was close enough to ask for support. It was like he lived completely alone on an island.

I think that long-term, committed mentorship is very important strategy in helping children and young people build meaningful relationships and to establish a network of people who they can call on for support. This also means working with communities to help them understand - and become more responsible - for the critical role that they can play in care leavers’ lives.

LH: Lastly, can you tell us about why you founded the Kenya Society of Care Leavers (KESCA)?

I founded the Kenya Society of Care Leavers in 2009 because I felt that care leavers didn’t really have a strong voice, there was no platform for care leavers, and people were not listening to us. For instance NGOs generally have a very strong focus on children but they don’t have many programmes which target young people in their late teens and early 20’s. Even now, despite lots of donor interest, there has been more talking than actual change, and most of our support for KESCA still comes from individuals, not donors. Nevertheless, KESCA has helped put care leaver issues on the map in Kenya and we are starting to see more attention being placed on this critical issue.

If you want to learn more, Stephen recommends these links:




Stephen Ucembe