Oct 29 2012

Who Is an Orphan?

orphan definition Africa is home to 59 million orphans. Nelson is one of them.

How exactly do we define orphan? As we follow Nelson’s journey, we will see multiple definitions of this oft-misunderstood term.

A Turn for the Worse

Meet Nelson Mandela. Not the iconic South African leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, but a budding Leadership Development Program student of business at Kenyatta University, one of the leading public universities in Kenya.

orphan definition

Nelson is the third of five children in a family that was blessed to have both parents. Both mother and father were employed and the family lived in a suburb of Nairobi, the capital city. Nelson grew up in a loving family — until life took a sharp turn for the worse.

Nelson tells us,

“My father was attacked by thugs. He was shot and killed on his way from work.”

The loss left Nelson and his family devastated.

At this point in his life, he and his siblings were what we categorize as a single orphan.

A single orphan is defined as a child living with the loss of one parent. More specifically, Nelson was what we call a paternal orphan. If a single orphan loses his mother, he is referred to as a maternal orphan.

Life at a Standstill

Nelson recalls the early days after his father died:

“We grieved our father, but my mom was shattered and she could not come to terms with it. She slid into depression. After one month in deep depression, my mother suffered a severe stroke.”

His mom passed away, leaving her five young children in despair.

“The loss of both parents in that space of time was a big shock to us. I felt like my life had come to a standstill.”

When we think of the term orphan, we most often think of children who have lost both parents.

After their mother’s death, Nelson and his siblings moved from single orphan to the most common definition: total orphans.

Nelson’s oldest sibling faced a difficult challenge. He was now a head-of-household orphan. At only 11 years old, Nelson’s oldest brother was in charge of caring for his four younger siblings, ages 9, 7, 5 and 2.

Moving Into a New Chapter

Nelson and his siblings had to adapt quickly to their new circumstances. Their grandparents took them in, which involved a move from the city to rural, western Kenya, 400 kilometers away.

Home in western Kenya

Their strength waning with age, the grandparents were not prepared to handle five grandchildren on their own.

Nelson and his siblings are examples of something fairly typical in the African culture. If both parents die and other family members are able, the family will take in the orphaned children as their own.

Nelson’s grandparents were indeed able to take them in, but due to their frail condition they were unable to provide parental-level care to Nelson and his siblings.

This introduces another type of orphan: the virtual or social orphan.

Unlike Nelson, these orphans may still have living parents. However, the parents are unable to take care of their children for one reason or another. For example, they may have deserted the family or are in jail.

No matter the label, an orphan is a child deprived of parental care and protection.

But no orphan need be outside of God’s special attention. He is the ultimate caretaker of orphans. Throughout Scripture we see His promises. In John 14:18, Jesus says,

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”

In Psalm 68, He promises that He is “a father to the fatherless.”

God did not forget Nelson and his siblings.

Compassion Enters

Fortunately for Nelson, he moved to an area where a local church partners with Compassion to run a church-based child development center. The situation at home was dire, and enrollment in the local Compassion-assisted child development center was an answer to prayer.

“I joined the Mahaya Child Development Center and the social worker there became very close to me. I developed a connection with him. I would meet him every Saturday and, after the program, we would talk about life.”

Nelson drew strength from a loving God, his courageous-but-aging grandparents, and a generous worker at his child development center who invested in him.

After his secondary-school education, Nelson was admitted to the university. Better still, after a series of interviews, he qualified to join Compassion’s Leadership Development Program.

“When I joined university, I met Mr. Kimando, one of my lecturers at the university. He openly professed his faith in Jesus. I admired him.”

Nelson approached the professor and formed a rapport with him. He is now mentored by Mr. Kimando, and also participates in a male mentorship module dubbed Boyz to Men. It is administered by Transform Kenya, an organization that seeks to equip young men with godly principles.

“My perspective about growing up into a man has reformed, especially since I did not grow up with my father. I now have a better understanding of my role as a man and a future father.”

God did not abandon Nelson the orphan. And through the care of ministry and university mentors, this young man is on pace to become a world changer.



Nelson’s story and photos compiled by Silas Irungu, Field Communications Specialist

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  1. Mike Stephens
    Oct 29, 2012
    at 5:37 pm

    Here’s some orphans from Sudan, man can they sing! ;) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypZE6skmu_Q

    • Jacquie Parella
      Oct 29, 2012
      at 8:08 pm

      LOVE Make Way Partners Mike. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Oct 29, 2012
    at 9:01 pm

    Thank God for Christian Missionaries

  3. Nate
    Oct 30, 2012
    at 7:41 am

    This posting caused me to think more deeply, into the mind of an orphan. I read it following an article about self esteem.
    If children with two parents have self esteem issues, what do orphans deal with? After all, one parent died. The other abandoned them. I currently sponsor one boy just like that, only the story goes on to the uncle who also tried to poison him. How is this orphan’s self esteem working out?
    We, in Compassion, are investing in the lives of these who need help, love, acceptance and encouragement. We, in many cases, take on the role of parent.
    These kids are not just projects. They are our children.

    • Oct 30, 2012
      at 12:44 pm

      I agree that these kids are never “projects”. They’re not “broken”. They’re not a “thing”. They’re people who need support, same as anyone else. They’re beautiful people who have so much potential in the world, and Compassion gives them the chance to explore that in ways that might not have been otherwise possible. For our part, my husband and I view ourselves as more like an aunt and uncle (though I can see your point of parents too). We’re not there every day, and maybe sometimes our only connection is through a letter or a small gift. But we have an impact on their lives. We can be there to say ‘you can do this’, ‘you are a gift in this world’, ‘you are a blessing’ when maybe some others aren’t saying that. It’s a gift just to be a sponsor, and such a blessing. I’m so grateful we have the opportunity to have these wonderful children in our lives.

  4. Oct 30, 2012
    at 12:39 pm

    Thank you for posting this. It clarifies some questions I had (and had forgotten having, so thank you again!) about which children are considered orphans and which ones aren’t.

    I’m so grateful that Compassion could help Nelson, and that they help so many other children as well! It makes the world brighter to know that, even with all the dark things that come up in life, I can remember that organizations like Compassion are out there, helping kids, changing the world, and making a positive difference in so many lives. Thank you!

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