From an abusive orphanage to a family home: the UK student

15Mar 2019
Correspondent
The Guardian
From an abusive orphanage to a family home: the UK student

MOST students who take a gap year come back with ideals that all too often fade. But Letty McMaster, from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, was so moved by the plight of street children she met in Africa that she adopted nine of them and paid for their education.

Letty McMaster (C) with her adoptive children: from left to right, Flygod, Lidia, Eva, Iddy, Simoni, Baraka, Pishon and Razarlo

After finishing her A-levels McMaster volunteered in a Tanzanian orphanage, but the fresh-faced 18-year-old was so horrified by what she found that she hatched a plan to help the children.

 

She set up a charity in the UK to raise enough money to provide the children with a happy and secure home in Tanzania, becoming their legal guardian at the age of just 22.

 

When she first arrived at the orphanage in Iringa, central Tanzania, McMaster found around 100 children between the ages of three to 18. 

 

“I arrived at the centre to find a horrific situation, so much physical and mental abuse,” she says. “Awful things happened there."

 

Beatings were common and urgent medical treatment was often denied. There were three children to each single bed, no medical supplies or mosquito nets and it was a battle to take sick children to the doctor.

 

The staff stole donations and if a child started to do well at school, they would be punished or sent back to the streets. Sometimes the staff would pretend they were taking the children home or to a family, and then simply abandon them.

McMaster extended her stay in Tanzania by three months at the orphanage and started planning the children's future.

Over the next few years McMaster, now 24, shuttled back and forth between the UK and Tanzania, teaching herself Swahili and using her own money to sponsor 50 children to go to school – all while studying for her degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

She launched a charity, Street Children Iringa, and began to fundraise back home in Kent, raising £4,000 in her first year. The money helped to pay for mosquito nets, school fees, uniforms and medicines.

In 2016 the orphanage was condemned by the council and the children scattered, either back to the streets or to distant family.

Eight children were left behind and McMaster spent her summer holiday battling Tanzanian bureaucracy as she sought approval to set up a home for them.

“Those in charge made it incredibly difficult. They’d tell me to write a letter, and then say I had to write it again. They’d tell me I needed to go to a different office, where I’d then be sent back to the first. There was a lot of waiting,” she says.

She rented a six-bedroom house and at the end of September 2016 she received a call that would change her life – McMaster was now the children’s legal guardian.

“It was the best moment of my life. It had been such a difficult journey but their smiles and happiness at escaping the orphanage, and for now having a home, made it all worth it,” she says.

A typical day now involves a breakfast of tea and doughnuts which the children and McMaster eat together. After school the boys play football and the girls often volunteer at a nursery. In the evening they all sit down for a big family dinner before homework.

 

The journey hasn’t been without its struggles; many in the community have tried to abuse McMaster's goodwill, and she has found it hard to keep the children away from their previous life on the streets.

Another street boy, Pishon, has since joined the family and now spends his spare time creating music with Iddy, the joker of the house. Razarlo hopes to become a footballer, Flygod is master of the kitchen, Simoni is the boy with an infectious smile and Baraka wants to be a soldier.

Every Friday, Baraka, Flygod and Razarlo play in a football match. “I stand on the side lines like a pushy mother cheering them on,” McMaster says.

Gosberth, now a straight-A student, has secured a place at one of the best schools in Tanzania and plans to become a doctor. Eva hopes to train as a nurse and Lidia a teacher – the twins narrowly escaped female genital mutilation and being married off to older men from the Masai tribe.

Last summer McMaster completed her degree and is now focusing on expanding the charity. “I would love to get as many children and teenagers as possible off the streets of Iringa,” she says. “I want to make sure all the children in this house get into employment and build a happy life for themselves.

“When the children grow and leave, I hope to provide a home for more children on the streets, and to also help girls from the Masai tribe escape forced marriage and instead get an education.”

She adds: “I never imagined this is where life would take me, or that I’d be a ‘mother/big sis’ to nine. I just think I am so lucky to have two families – one in England and one in Tanzania.”