Eight-year-old Mariam climbs on a stack of white sacks containing charcoal and begins to sing.
“This is the day, this is the day that the Lord has made,” she belts out. A group of children gathers around her. There’s a 5- or 6-year-old girl carrying her infant brother on her back, a boy with sores on his skin and a dozen other kids, some wearing dirty, tattered clothing because it’s all their parents can afford. A few children stand out from the others. Their clothes are in good condition, they’re wearing shoes and they’re smiling. A couple of them start to sing along—they learned this one at their Compassion centre.
Sponsored children’s distinctly hopeful spirits illuminate this crime-ridden neighbourhood in Uganda, where Mariam, her three siblings and their mother, Goretti, live in a rented clay home with a leaky roof. Floral curtains divide the living area from the family’s bed. Just outside the door is a cooking area and a heap of charcoal that Goretti sells. But she doesn’t sell enough to meet all her family’s needs. Her customer base lives in the same impoverished neighbourhood and can’t afford to buy much. Her husband, who helps with the charcoal business, recently moved in with another woman down the street. Adding further stress, she worries that her home will be bulldozed.
“We’ve already received notices from the government that they want to destroy this whole place, remove all these ramshackle houses,” Goretti says. “They could get rid of us at any time.”
Despite these ongoing hardships, the family’s situation has improved immensely over the past eight years. When Compassion’s local church partners in Kampala first visited the slum to offer help to families there, they found Goretti feeding tea to newborn Mariam. They asked why she wasn’t breastfeeding the baby, and Goretti said she couldn’t afford formula and was afraid to give her daughter the HIV she’d been diagnosed with in 2005.
Seeing that Mariam was malnourished, the church workers immediately registered her and Goretti in Compassion’s Child Survival Program. Babies and their caregivers in the program receive health care, spiritual guidance, food, education and other crucial support. Program workers delivered groceries to Goretti, including formula and supplements to boost the baby’s health. Thankfully, Mariam tested negative for HIV.
To ensure that the mother could better meet her family’s future needs, Compassion trained Goretti in income generation. After learning more about running a small business, she and her husband took out a $450 loan from the bank, which they used to by a large supply of charcoal. Their business began to pick up. On typical days, Goretti makes about $3 to $4. She pays $19 a month in rent and $12 a week in loan repayment on top of other costs of raising four children. But the family still needs help.
When Mariam was 3, she was registered in the Child Sponsorship Program. Her sponsor, Eun Yeong Choi, writes to her often and even flew to Uganda from South Korea to visit her. “He’s the best,” gushes Mariam, who speaks English in addition to her mother’s language, Luganda. “Even if I’m sick, he can write a letter to me, say, ‘May God bless you, Mariam. … Even if I’m sad I can get a smile. When he writes a letter, I can be happy.”
Encouraging words carry extra weight in an environment that places children in situations they should never have to face, such as crime, violence and poverty. But with a trust in God that grows stronger with each day spent at her Compassion centre, Mariam is gaining fuel to endure through her difficult circumstances.
Text by Willow Welter, Compassion USA, with Caroline A. Mwinemwesigwa, Compassion Uganda. Photos by Chuck Bigger.