‘An orphanage stole my childhood… It took one person to turn my life around’
IT TOOK ONE PERSON TO TURN MY LIFE AROUND
Rukhiya Budden spent her early years in an abusive Nairobi orphanage. Now she’s working to save the children of today from institutions. By Sally Williams
At the age of four, she was abandoned in a Nairobi orphanage rife with sexual abuse. Then, after a decade of misery, she was rescued by a concerned Japanese visitor who paid for a new start in Britain. As the Government pledges to support the
removal of children from institutions around the world, the charity ambassador Rukhiya Budden tells Sally Williams why she is campaigning for the end of orphanages everywhere. Portrait by Tina Hillier
Rukhiya Budden is showing me a photograph of a group of sweet-looking children in an orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. The children are wearing their best clothes and brightest smiles, but anger flashes across Budden’s face. ‘There must have been visitors coming,’ she says. Donors, representatives from the charitable world, tourists wanting to help.
The happy scene, she says, is a lie. She knows because she was there. It was around 1981. She points to her five-year-old self peering out from a sea of faces. ‘I was beaten to make me sing songs for those visitors, told how to be excited for those visitors, dressed up in nice clothes for those visitors, because without their money the orphanages would not carry on.’
This is all very incongruous as we are standing in a large, elegant kitchen in a many-acred property in the Berkshire countryside. Budden, who is in her early 40s, is glossy and loose-limbed. She is married to Nic Budden, CEO of estate agency Foxtons and a successful businessman with whom she has three daughters, 15, 13 and three. Outside is a large swimming pool, and a cocker spaniel called Ziggy.
Budden has no idea when or where she was born or who her father is; only that she is mixed race, that her mother is Kenyan, and that she is the fourth of six children all from different fathers (one sister died). She describes her early life as ‘secure’. Her mother had married a Danish aid worker who adopted Budden and her younger sister. They had a daughter (subsequently discovered not to be his) and the family lived among the expat community, travelling between Kenya, Denmark and Sweden.
In the early 1980s, the marriage broke down and her mother moved to Nairobi with Budden and her younger sister, while her ex-husband went to Denmark with their daughter. The subsequent custody battle (which she lost) required her mother’s presence in Denmark; so much so that when Budden was about four, her mother felt she had no choice but to leave her and her younger sister in an orphanage on the edge of one of the largest slums in Nairobi. ‘Basically, there was no one to look after us,’ Budden says. She remembers the day well. ‘It was awful, horrendous, something that still affects me today – that sense of abandonment.’
Founded and run by a Muslim woman, the orphanage was funded by private donors and overseas faith groups – not exclusively Muslim, though a big source of income was from a Muslim charity in Libya. The orphanage must have convinced Budden’s mother that she was doing a good thing. ‘That is what they do. The more children they have, the more money they get,’ she says.
There were separate dormitories for girls and boys, three-tier bunk beds and two toilets for more than 100 children. But there was no one to comfort Budden when she wet the bed, got tapeworms or fell ill – in her time there she suffered from malaria, cholera and typhoid. Her cheeks were slapped, and there were dank beds, a poor diet and sexual predators (both staff and the older boys; she wasn’t molested herself but she saw it happen. ‘The worst thing was when you wanted to go to the toilet in the night: you couldn’t, because you were scared that someone might abuse you’). Anorexia became a strategy. ‘You don’t eat, you don’t feel. You don’t eat, you don’t grow. If I had breasts and a big bum I would have been a target. I didn’t want to get raped. I didn’t want to be noticed. I just wanted to disappear.’ She and her sister were discouraged from being close. ‘We were told that the other children who didn’t have anyone would feel bad. They said that everyone in the orphanage was our sister or our brother.’
Budden was in the children’s home for nearly 10 years (and her Muslim faith endures from that time). Usually she’d get up at 5.30am for six o’clock prayers, then line up to get washed in a tin bath and have a mug of tea and two pieces of toast for breakfast. She walked back and forth to school – a round journey of nearly two hours, twice a day, as she came back for lunch. ‘I was five. Nobody held my hand. Even my 15-year-old wouldn’t be able to make that journey.’ Lunch was ugali , a kind of maize porridge, as was dinner, perhaps with a tiny piece of meat. She spent her evenings studying the Koran and then went to bed at 7.30pm. From the age of 11 she and another girl chose to sleep on the roof to avoid being raped by the older boys.
It sounds horrific, as does her story of the boy who accidentally died after being plunged into a hot bath, and the girl who lay dead in her bed and was only discovered during a game of hide and seek. She says praying helped her to survive. ‘I was crying for my mother and one of the girls said, “If you pray with me, maybe your mum will come back.” I started to believe that maybe there is something bigger than me that would make things better.’ But what really kept her going, she says, was ‘the dream that someone would come for me and take me away’.
Salvation came after she’d been at the orphanage for around eight years, in the unlikely figure of Tomiji Minagawa, a former Japanese Second World War fighter pilot who lived nearby, and shuffled around in John Lennon glasses, slippers and a cardigan. ‘He was just an ordinary man with a very kind heart,’ she says now. She first met Tomiji around 1989. ‘He visited the orphanage a few times and we all used to go around to his place after the mosque and he would give us sweets. When I say that now, it sounds really dodgy, but the sexual abuse that went on in the home was from the staff and the older children, not the visitors.’ Anyway, Tomiji liked Budden and her sister and offered to pay their school fees when donor money dried up. But Budden said what they really wanted was to live with him. ‘He said, “No!” and started laughing, but eventually we persuaded him to take us.’
He took the girls in (after checks by social workers) 18 months later. Budden was 13 or so, and still remembers the excitement of having her own house key. ‘We ate at a table for the first time.’
She says he helped her find her mother. ‘The orphanage told me she was dead, but actually she was living in Nairobi.’ Tomiji encouraged her and her sister to study and to come to London, covering the cost from his savings and his military pension. ‘He was like my dad,’ she says. ‘He was a disciplinarian who wanted the best for us, wanted us to do well, but at the same time he was very loving and fun. He had some female Japanese friends who would come over and teach us Japanese manners and how to make sushi, and would dress us up in Japanese clothes. He laughed a lot. He made us feel secure. His worry was that he would die and we would have to go back into the orphanage. That’s why he wanted us to make something of our lives. He didn’t want us to ever go back to that life.’
Aged 18 Budden came to London and studied performing arts at Morley College, the adult education centre in Waterloo. Realising she wasn’t a very good dancer, she switched to jobs in travel and tourism, and then accounting and eventually got a job in a property company. But when she was 23 it all came crashing down. The compulsion to not eat, which had started in the orphanage, had stayed with her. ‘People have different strategies to cope with pain and that was my way of coping – to not eat.’
Weighing just five and a half stone and feeling suicidal, Budden was admitted to the Princess Grace Hospital, a private hospital in London (paid for by her then employers), where she spent six weeks. She says she still struggles with anorexia – the potential for relapse always lurks in the background. She is now training to be a psychotherapist, and wants to work with parents of children with eating disorders. ‘I want to help them to spot the illness at an early age, before the disorder takes hold.’
She met her husband soon after she was discharged from hospital, through work. ‘He was working for a company that was taking over the property company I was working for,’ she says, ‘I was ashamed to tell him I was from a children’s home. I thought if I tell him, I’m never going to see him again. But when I told him, he said, “That’s interesting, I’ve sponsored three children from Ethiopia.” He started sponsoring when he was 15. I thought, “Oh my God, he’s the one for me”!’
A self-made businessman from a working-class background, Budden says he shares her values: he’s down-to-earth, hard-working, kind. ‘To be
successful is not to have the artificial stuff – money, things – it’s to have someone there to love you. I had that with Tomiji and now I’ve got a wonderful husband.’ They’ve been married for nearly 18 years.
Budden seems amazingly together for someone who had such a traumatic childhood. She explains that she’s had lots of therapy, and that she’s always ‘wanted to give back’ and do something for all the children still in orphanages around the world. She calls them ‘my brothers and sisters’; such is the strength of her personal link.
Last year she launched the Bag of Joy initiative, sending kits – containing, among other things, a journal and colouring pencils – to children in orphanages, starting with her old orphanage in Nairobi. The aim was to distribute one million kits. She believes colouring has a therapeutic benefit as well as being a means of personal expression, and raised nearly £2,000 for this project in one evening alone. ‘But as I was doing this, I thought, “Wait a minute Rukhiya, this is ridiculous. When you were young, you didn’t want a Bag of Joy. You wanted someone to come and take you away and love you.”’
She was still puzzling what to do when she came across Hope and Homes for Children, the charity which fights to shut down orphanages globally; Budden became an ambassador for it earlier this year. Founded by Mark Cook, a retired British Army officer, and his wife Caroline in 1994, after reading about a group of children struggling to survive in an orphanage in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, the charity now works in 28 countries and is backed by such stars as Ed Sheeran and Elton John.
Meanwhile, at a conference last month, the International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt announced a pledge to support the removal of children from orphanages around the world, ideally into the care of families. ‘The UK Government recognises that institutionalisation harms children’s physical, emotional and psychological development... and will work towards the long-term process of de-institutionalisation,’ she said. ‘The UK is supportive of inclusive community services for all children and the promotion of family and community-based care.’
The charity is against orphanages because even the ‘good’ ones don’t offer the one thing children need: unconditional love, says Budden. She points out that the term ‘orphan’ is often misleading. She wasn’t an orphan. She had a living parent, and extended family. As do 80 per cent of the eight million or so children living in institutions around the world. Poverty and disability are among the main reasons children end up in institutions, not the death of a mother or father, she says.
Hope and Homes for Children believes it is far better to support families and communities to care for children who have been abandoned or neglected, rather than consigning them to shelters, orphanages or child-care institutions. ‘Orphanages might seem like the best option, promising stability, education and care – but in fact they put children at a higher risk of abuse, neglect and psychological disorders,’ Budden says. She gets particularly incensed by people volunteering in orphanages, and by schools supporting orphanages, and is scathing about parttime do-gooders. ‘“I went to Mumbai and I visited this lovely orphanage and my daughter is going to help them on her gap year,”’ she says, in a posh English accent. ‘People need to ask themselves, what do children really need?’
For the first time Budden thinks she’s found a charity that really understands the problem. ‘Orphanages don’t care for children. They are not good for children. An orphanage stole my childhood,’ she says. And she is now on a mission to close all orphanages, everywhere. (Lumos – the charity founded by JK Rowling, the Harry Potter author, in 2005 – works to the same end.)
Hope and Homes for Children partners with like-minded NGOS, academics and committed individuals, and its representatives hit the road, criss-crossing the globe, convincing governments to close orphanages, take the funding that serves them and invest it in family-based care. The intent is for children to be reunited with their birth parents, or placed with foster and adoptive families; and for these families to be supported. It advocates that orphanage staff be retrained as social workers and for ‘community hubs’ – a network of day and community centres that offer help and courses on such issues as breastfeeding and childcare.
So far, the charity has convinced Romania to radically re-evaluate its policy on orphanages. Numbers of children living in institutions have dropped from 100,000 in 1998 to fewer than 7,200 today. The Romanian government is committed to closing all remaining orphanages by 2026. Rwanda is another example. It has closed over 80 per cent of its orphanages since 2011. ‘Orphanages haven’t been acceptable here for 30 years, why should they be acceptable anywhere else?’ says Budden.
It is, of course, a staggering ambition, but she is nothing if not wholehearted. She admits she used to have a problem talking about her background, ‘because of the shame’. ‘I used to lie and make up stories and talk about my mum and dad.’ More recently, if the mums at the school gate, say, mentioned parents, ‘I’d change the subject, or make an excuse and leave. It felt very intimidating, that sense of not being good enough, of not fitting in.’ ‘Now I can’t shut up,’ she says.
In the late 1990s, Budden moved her mother to the UK. She is now 64, lives independently and Budden visits her occasionally. I ask how she feels about her mother. ‘She was the most loving person, and still is. I never blamed her for what she did. I don’t believe any mother wants to abandon her children.’ She’s tried asking her about her father, to no avail. Budden’s sister, meanwhile, lives in London and works with alcoholics and drug addicts.
And the fact that she’s ended up in a Home Counties mansion is the stuff of fairy tales. Does she have to pinch herself ? ‘Not a single day goes by without me being grateful for being alive,’ she says. ‘But I can see the things I missed out on – I have endured pain and suffering and very severe mental-health issues.’
And if anything, having children has, at times, heightened the losses. ‘I don’t want my children to feel guilty because I had nothing,’ she continues. ‘I am not one of those parents who says, “Don’t you realise how lucky you are?”’ Rather, she describes herself as a demonstrative mother: lots of hugs and cuddles and talk of ‘unconditional love’; and she takes pleasure in giving money away – she is paying for a girl in Kenya to go to university, for example.
In 2008, she took her husband and daughters back to Nairobi to meet Tomiji and visit the orphanage. ‘It was very dilapidated, very dirty, I could see rats running around. When I got back to the hotel I shut myself in my room and cried and cried. I realised what a lucky escape I’d had, what Tomiji had done.’ They discovered Tomiji hadn’t been able to pay his rent for the previous two years; Budden paid his arrears and more besides, on the understanding Tomiji could stay in perpetuity. He died three months later. He was 85.
Earlier this year, she went back to the orphanage to make a film for Hope and Homes for Children. ‘I didn’t give them much warning so they didn’t have time to get the children ready. I saw toddlers just walking around with zombie stares. They’ve realised crying is not going to help.
‘What these children want is to belong. They want to be loved. They want a home to go to,’ she says, ‘I used to think, what can one person really do? What difference can we make? And then I realised, wait a minute: it only took one person to completely turn my life around.’
Hope and Homes for Children’s ‘End the Silence’ appeal is helping to move children with disabilities out of east African orphanages, and into loving families; hopeandhomes.org
Opposite: Rukhiya Budden today and, above, with Tomiji Minagawa and two of her daughters, in 2008