NAIROBI — Losing both parents is a traumatic experience. For Kenyan young adults, this process becomes even more difficult as they struggle with social stigma, financial insecurity, begrudging relatives, and lack of an emotional support system. To deal with these challenges, Catherine “Sonnie” Gitonga
started an adult orphan support group through her foundation,
Scars to Stars, to help these young people deal with the challenges of daily life.
Catherine “Sonnie” Gitonga is 30 years old. She lost her father at age 14 and her mother when she was 18. She realized that the needs of young adult orphans were not being met, so she started the Scars to Stars foundation in 2007 -- which hosts a monthly support group for adult orphans between the ages of 15 and 35.
“So I just thought, someone might be struggling the same road. And I know people don’t really think of young adult orphans… many have issues that they don’t know are actually issues from their past,” she explained.
But these issues are usually buried, because young adults are considered old enough to take care of themselves.
“OK, we always think that an orphan is someone between that age, something to do with one year to nine years. And the others, they think that you can now fend for yourself. You are a big person,” said group member Silas Yuaya.
For older orphans, who are many times forced to drop out of school due to a lack of fees, society often interprets “fending for yourself” as becoming a casual laborer, beggar, or prostitute to earn money.
When Gitonga’s parents died, even her own family assumed this. “Actually, one of my uncles, after the funeral, called the four of us, we are girls, and told us, ‘Now, your parents have died, do whatever you want to do, but don’t do it in this house. Do not make this house a brothel.’ And actually, at that time, I didn’t even know what a brothel was. I just saw my sister broke down and cried. And later, I was like, what did he say? What’s a brothel? Yeah, so do it, but do it outside," she recalls. "That is how people look, that is what they see.”
Christabel Masheti has been coming to Gitonga’s support group since 2007. She is now 33 years old, but was 18 when both of her parents died. She says that many of these relatives who bring orphaned family members into their homes do so with resentment. And the orphans suffer.
“Most of them, here, they’re mistreated, but they have no choice. Wherever they live, they do all the housework, like the housegirls," Masheti explained. "They are insulted, they’re insulted by their relatives. Financially, they’re not helped. They have to seek help outside.”
But Gitonga says that sometimes when these young adults do seek help outside, they lack the tools to make it on their own.
“Most of them are void of emotional support, they go through a lot of stress. They relieve it in so many ways, they get into drugs, they get into that prostitution, many, many get married early, not because of love, but to escape from the hard life that they are living," said Gitonga. "And unfortunately, they get married to men who abuse them.”
Gitonga’s monthly support group has over 40 active members, split about evenly between men and women. Participants sing songs, play games, and talk about their week. They discuss topics like HIV, rape, and mistreatment in their relatives’ homes. For many, it is the only chance they have to talk about their feelings.
“Emotionally, it has helped me emotionally. I started with Catherine at the beginning, the very beginning, so I’ve met a number of people and I’ve realized that people have gone through worse things than me,” Masheti explained.
Gitonga agrees that a good support system is the key to healing. “So it helps in so, so many ways. Yeah, and just to know that you’re not alone. It just makes you brighten up, it just gives you this confidence in life,” she said.
And this confidence seems to be improving their lives.