Who Is an Orphan?

Africa is home to 59 million orphans. Nelson is one of them. As we follow Nelson’s journey, we’ll answer the following questions: what is an orphan, what is the meaning of orphan, and how can you sponsor an orphan.

A Turn for the Worse

Meet Nelson Mandela. Not the iconic South African leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, but a budding 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, with one surviving 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.

Meaning of Orphan

Although in the United States, we often think the meaning of orphan is that both parents are dead, UNICEF defines orphan as, “a child under 18 years of age who has lost one or both parents to any cause of death.”

Empowering Orphans Like Nelson

Nelson’s story is a heart-wrenching reminder of the struggles faced by orphans in Africa. His journey from a loving family to facing the harsh reality of orphanhood is a call to action. By understanding the definition of orphan, we can extend our support and compassion to children like Nelson. Their resilience in the face of adversity inspires us to make a difference.

Support Orphans Today

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.”

Definition of Orphan

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 orphanhood to the most common definition of orphan: total orphans. Sometimes total orphans are also called double 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.

Learn More: How to Help Orphans Without Adopting

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

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 rather than having them enter an orphanage.

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, virtual or social 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.

Read More: A Beautiful Orphan Story: Finding Jesus After Trauma

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 sponsorship at 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 and received financial support to continue his education.

“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.”

two smiling men surrounded by green bushes

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.

You too can get involved in orphan care. Donate to help Highly Vulnerable Children, Sponsor a Child’s Education or sponsor an orphan today!

Who is Compassion International?

Compassion International stands out as the best charity to sponsor a child, with the mission of releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name. We are dedicated to fostering the holistic development of underprivileged children through our unique child sponsorship model. By connecting compassionate individuals with children living in poverty, Compassion International ensures that each child receives not only basic necessities but also educational support, medical care, and the chance to experience the joy of childhood.

Sponsor an Orphan Today! ›

Nelson’s story and photos compiled by Silas Irungu, Field Communications Specialist. This article was originally published Oct 29, 2012.

6 Comments |Add a comment

  1. Megan Peterson October 30, 2012

    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!

  2. Nate October 30, 2012

    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.

    1. Megan Peterson October 30, 2012

      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.

  3. Karen G October 29, 2012

    Thank God for Christian Missionaries

  4. Mike Stephens October 29, 2012

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

    1. Jacquie Parella October 29, 2012

      LOVE Make Way Partners Mike. Thanks for sharing!

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