The Brick Project Conversations, Part Twelve: Linda and Stephen
Introduction by Linda Kenny
I first became aware of El Shadai and it’s founder Stephen Wante in late 2011 when talking with Colleen LaFontaine and Chitra Rajeshwari from One World Children’s Fund. I was planning my first trip to Africa as a volunteer and so hearing from Colleen and Chitra about their 2011 visit to El Shadai was timely.
El Shadai is 1 of 35 grass root charities that One World Children’s Fund has chosen to partner with.
Briefly, El Shadai is a foster home in Uganda that currently houses 35 children.
It was started about 13 years ago by Stephen Wante when he reached out to help his first street kid, himself being a young man of 21 only. Stephen, having suffered an abusive childhood seems gifted with both the empathy and wisdom needed to counsel and help those in need, especially children and young people.
El Shadai is situated in a town called Bugembe in south east Uganda. It is located about 5 miles from Jinja (source of the Nile) and 55 miles from the capital of Kampala. Population numbers consulted vary a lot but very roughly, Bugembe is around 50k, Jinja 100k and the capital, Kampala, about 5 million.
The rest of Uganda is rural.
Though very poor, with both power and water shortages a daily issue, I had a great experience while there.
The life can be very hard with medical issues, lack of funds for school, rent and food but the wonderful spirit of the children moved me to where I will always remember it fondly. I truly had a wonderful experience in all 3 places I stayed at in Africa but on my return to the USA I concluded that as El Shadai seemed to be in the most need, I would offer my services to One World Children’s Fund and the existing group of champions for El Shadai. I have not been sorry.
What a wonderful group of kids and how lucky they are to have uncle Stephen as their guardian and his lovely wife Dinah as a mother figure.
Interview with Stephen Wante
Linda: Stephen, when we met in 2012 it was in Jinja District, Uganda. I was arriving by bus from Nairobi, Kenya to stay with you and the El Shadai family in Bugembe, Uganda.
Little did I know then what a strong relationship would develop and that almost one year to the day, you would be making your very first visit to the USA and I in turn would be hosting you! So, let’s get started, Stephen:
Firstly, I think it is important to explain why you decided to call El Shadai a ‘foster home’ and not an ‘orphanage’ and also, what does “El Shadai” mean?
Stephen: El-Shadai Family Home is one of the homes I have initiated.
This home creates a healthy home environment for the most vulnerable children who have either been orphaned, abandoned or neglected.
In the home these formerly less privileged children are provided with basic needs and improved conditions of living to ensure a better spiritual, economic, social and psychological well being.
Initially before starting El Shadai family home, I used to work with an organization called Restoration Outreach International – a day care service centre to street children which would give them a chance to eat, take a bath and then return to the street.
With this background in mind, when I finally stopped working with this organization, some of the street children had become so attached to me and yet had no where to go apart from the street.
I wanted these children to have as near to a normal home as possible and that is why I started a ‘home’ and not an ‘orphanage’.
It is then that I decided to start a home. I wanted these children to have as near to a normal home as possible and that is why I started a home and not an orphanage. My vision was that these former street children would be loved, cared for and guided in a family set up. I wanted them to have a place to call home. Some of the children I started with were not orphans but were simply abused or rejected by their parents. I therefore needed to create a home where both orphans, former street children, rejected and abused children would all feel welcome and reestablish their identity.
El Shadai means ‘God the provider’. When I started this home I was only twenty two years old and did not have a lot of earnings apart from a few savings. I had to have faith in something bigger and I also needed to teach the children that in spite of their background, the Universe would provide for them no matter what. That is why I called the home El Shadai.
Some of the children I began with have since grown up and some are at the university, some are in high school and a few are still primary school.
Two of them, Eddy and Esther left to get married.
One other child, Archie Emma (now grown up) was inspired by and me and has teamed up with another person to start a foster home that has over 40 children. Agnes Naigaga finished University and is now working with the community as well as helping to pay school fees for her younger sisters.
Linda: Would you share with us Stephen, a little about your own childhood and how what happened to you led you to starting a foster home which today houses up to 35 kids in various stages of development, from primary school through university?
Stephen: I am commonly known as “Uncle Stephen” or ‘counselor’ by children, families and people around Jinja.
I was born in a dysfunctional family where my father was a drunk and a very violent man. He would come back drunk in the night and beat me and my siblings. Many times we would run and sleep in the bush where my mother would sometimes bring us food. I remember my mother left home many times because of my father’s ill treatment of her. She eventually left my father when I was about 6 years old. My father eventually died as a result of taking poisoned liquor. At the time of my father’s death I was 12 years old.
I was born in a dysfunctional family where my father was a drunk and a very violent man.
At the age of 12, I became a part-time street child and spent most of my time working for people as a houseboy or a child-laborer to earn a living. This is the reason that I have first-hand experience about the lives of hurting, angry, bitter, rejected, hopeless and confused orphans.
I was inspired to reach out to these hurting lives but little did I know then that I could establish an organization that reaches many children, youth and families all around Uganda with the changing life message of ‘hope’.
I married my wife Dinah in September, 2008 and we now have two children of our own. We are also foster parents to 35 orphans – children who were in great need. Together, I and Dinah are reaching out to many children and youth in schools and families. My life is always an inspiration and as source of strength to many and I am still committed to reaching out to the community.
Linda: Your parents were not able to be ideal role models in your life Stephen but were there any other adult roles models for you to learn from or emulate?
Stephen: It took me quite a while to get any adult person that I could look up to. This is because most of the homes of relatives that I stayed with also had their own challenges.
There are still issues of domestic violence, child labor, abusive language and discrimination. Eventually, I got in touch with relatives who showed me love, helped me regain stability and identity in life, enabled me to believe in the human race again and just helped me get a healthier approach towards life.
Linda: Among the children you have taken into your home, there are cases of abuse, abandonment, death of parents from disease or even violence, homelessness, forced labor, as well as several teenagers who were on the verge of suicide.
While at your home what I saw were happy children and I’ve witnessed and heard of many success stories.
Stephen, how do you address the subject of suicide and how do you instill the will to live in children that are ready to give up?
Stephen: One of the key approaches is counseling. I am thankful that I am a trained counselor.
I did a diploma in counseling and family therapy. I was a youth leader by the age of 17 and I have on many occasions been involved in school ministry where I would offer carrier guidance, skills development and counseling to students in different schools. I have, over time, developed skills in counseling, guidance and have learned to be a good listener.
So, when I set up El Shadai family home, many of the children had challenges.
There were many with feelings of rejection, drug abuse, disobedience, rebellion, self-pity, suicidal tendencies, low self-esteem, identity crisis, a tendency toward theft and breaking the law, and so on.
My first step was to set up a home environment that would help them to work upon their challenges and enable them to find healing.
Such activities included having times of prayer and devotion as a family, group discussions and counseling, one-to-one counseling, talk shows, fun nights, celebration of birthdays and days of affirmation, attending of youth camps, visitation at schools, training in basic skills at home regardless of sex, and inviting other friends of mine to share wisdom and knowledge with the children.
There were feelings of rejection, drug abuse, disobedience, rebellion, self-pity, suicidal tendencies, low self-esteem, identity crisis, a tendency toward theft and breaking the law.
Linda: From 13 years ago when you took in your first street kid, how has your vision changed Stephen?
Did you even have a vision back then when you were a mere 21 years of age?
Stephen: As I indicated previously, when I started the home I did have a vision which was to provide a healthy environment – a home for less privileged children. The vision has not changed.
I have, for instance, discovered that beyond helping these children obtain a future for themselves, it is important that they too go out and lend a helping hand to their siblings and their families. I know now that some of the children may be better helped while staying with their relatives.
Since we realize that there are still many children out there who are in need and we cannot bring them all under our roof, we are now trying to reach out to the women, single mothers and grandmothers in the community. They are looking after orphans and children in need. We are organizing and accomplishing this goal by forming women groups comprising of single mothers, widows and grandparents. We teach these women’s groups business skills, parenting and so on, and we try to reach out to at least one child in each of these groups to try and break the poverty cycle.
Linda: You have written many manuals Stephen on subjects that include Parenting and Child Care that in my opinion would hold up outside as well as inside Uganda.
Do you have any hopes of publishing these works outside of Bugembe?
Stephen: Yes, as you indicated, I have written many materials although I have not officially published any books. At the moment I am using the information that I have put together to speak to different categories of people. I have, however, hopes of one day publishing these works.
Linda: Finally Stephen, you were voted the Mayor of Bugembe in 2011!
How has this new position aided you – or, perhaps restricted you – in your role of “Uncle Stephen”?
Stephen: The new office as the Mayor of Bugembe has aided me more in terms of sensitization of community towards child abuse. This includes initiating legislation such as setting by-laws to protect the children.
I have also been able to use my position to advocate for the rights of children, and for positive parenting and care for the local community.
As a mayor, I have remained “Uncle Stephen” to many people who come to me with various problems and am able to actively listen to them and later to also counsel them. I have empowered many families and people in the community.
The community looks to me as a role model since I have children we are looking after. I do also train poor women through women groups and empower schools with life skills. All this has enabled the people develop a positive perspective and to initiate constructive community models.