Never stop dreaming.

Touching down in Uganda was like landing on another planet.

All over the airport, we saw these signs touting “The Pearl of Africa.” Those signs weren’t lying. Uganda is the most magnificently beautiful place I have ever seen.

During the several hours it took to drive to Rakai Children’s Village, I was enthralled at the beauty of Uganda’s countryside. We traversed through bright green hillsides and across blue green swamps with tall grasses towering over little patches of waterlilies. Everything about the landscape was exotic, from the trees to the flowers to the animals we saw.

The men and women we encountered on our journey to the orphanage were every bit as exotic and beautiful. They shook our hands, hugged on us, prayed with us, and shared their stories. The Ugandan people were nothing short of a delight. When wide smiles broadened across their faces, their eyes shone bright and hopeful. When they prayed, their voices boomed with both zeal and humility. When they spoke, they did so with utmost respect and a kindness you don’t often encounter anywhere else.

Our arrival at Rakai Children’s Village was perhaps one of the most joyous moments of my work at Serving Orphans Worldwide. Children ran all the way down the drive to greet us and waved through the windows of the van as we pulled up to the home. Their sweet smiles were miniature versions of those we’d seen along the way, equally wide and bright. Rakai serves the children of the community by offering free to low-cost education, alongside their residential orphan ministry. Many of the school children were still at the compound, their studies interrupted by our arrival. The teachers allowed them to spend time with us that day before continuing their schooling.

As the children played with other team members, I sat down with some of the orphaned children one by one. I asked them about their lives at the orphanage and their lives before coming to Rakai. I had done my research and read every file we have on the children of Rakai, but there is nothing like hearing the stories from the children themselves.

Ramadhan, 13 years old, came to Rakai after being taken from an abusive aunt. His mother died in a tragic accident when he was only 7. His father died of HIV/AIDS three years later. Left to an aunt who didn’t want him, he was forced for several months to lay bricks and walk more than a mile five times a day for water. However, as he told me his story, Ramadhan spoke with a wisdom far beyond his age.

“Here…I can go to school. I can get education. I can go on to live my dream…”

Words like Ramadhan’s were endless among the children at Rakai.

Aminah, a 14 year old girl living at Rakai, told me that her dream was to design clothes. Her father was estranged. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer when Aminah was only 6 years old. For the next three years, Aminah helped care for her mother and watched her health steadily decline. When Aminah was only 9, her mother died on the operating table at a local hospital. From age 9 to nearly 11, Aminah cared for her two younger sisters because their grandmother was too old and sick to do so. When the children finally came to Rakai three years ago, it was Aminah’s first time attending school since her mother’s passing.

When I hear stories about children like Aminah, I cannot help but think of the children I know at that age.

It is such a tender age. It is the age that many children in our country are entering high school, beginning to think about what it will be like to be independent, dreaming about college and the life they look forward to after. The young men and women at Rakai and other orphanages like it are no different.

These children are growing, learning, and dreaming like all children do.

As I walked across the hillside and looked out over Uganda’s countryside later, I thought about the dreams of the children at Rakai. The lake in the distance glimmered in the sunset. Goats roamed nearby. Children giggled and chased one another in and out of the dormitories. Older boys and girls laid in the grass or shot basketball across the way. Rakai Children’s Village was both teeming with life and peaceful all at once. It is a place both full of pain and full of hope. I pulled my sweater tight in the evening breeze, closed my eyes, and prayed Uganda’s children never stop dreaming.

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Out of more than 153,000,000 orphans worldwide, only 23,609 were adopted in 2011. That’s less than 1%.

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Story : Emily Glover

Photography : Jeremy Snell