‘An or­phan­age stole my child­hood… It took one per­son to turn my life around’


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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

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