Famous Kenyan orphanage allegedly hid dark secrets

Washington Post

November 27, 2023

By Rael Ombuor

At the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when up to 12 million people were infected across sub-Saharan Africa, Nyumbani Children’s Home offered a refuge to Kenya’s dying children. Later, the institute, run by a Catholic charity, fought for the first batches of retroviral drugs for its sick toddlers.

Contributions poured in from American politicians, media personalities and celebrities. Former vice president Mike Pence praised the nun who ran it by name on World Aids Day in 2018 and hosted her at the White House. Congressional tours were frequent.

But behind the smiles and promotional tours, the privately funded orphanage allegedly concealed terrible secrets. In previously unreported claims, six former residents told The Washington Post there were multiple incidents of rape and other abuses of children by volunteers, caregivers and even other children. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s own previous investigation, following a whistleblower’s complaint, found abuse claims at the orphanage “credible,” according to court documents submitted by the orphanage’s Kenyan board in its efforts to oust its director. USAID did not directly support the orphanage, but funded two other associated programs.

One woman sent to Nyumbani when she was three years old said she was abused by a “brother” volunteering from a Catholic religious order when she was just hitting puberty. Like almost all the abuse victims who spoke to The Post, she spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her privacy.

“He was touching my private body parts,” she said. “He told me: ‘You don’t know how to kiss? Let me teach you. … You are a child, you do not know what to do.’”

Some survivors of sexual assault were required to write letters of apology, said a memo dated July 21, 2022 and written by USAID. The memo, which was submitted to the court and reviewed by The Post, also detailed evidence of sexual assaults uncovered by USAID that were discussed in assembly and described children blamed for assaults because of the clothing they were wearing. A six-year-old girl was raped by a 20-year-old man, the memo said; another girl was assaulted in a wheelchair recovering from surgery.

The revelations come amid a global flood of claims against the Catholic church and associated charities. Pope Francis has publicly apologized for the pain caused to victims, but many survivors say Catholic charities have failed to force through institutional reforms to safeguard children. Members of the orphanage’s British and American fundraising boards say its co-founder, Sister Mary Owens, repeatedly ignored concerns over abuse.

The USAID memo said that Owens had been aware of abuse allegations dating back to 2006 and had “neglected to document violence against children and demonstrated an alarming disregard for abuse … permitted a culture of victim blaming, failed to implement policies to protect and support the beneficiaries … and systematically failed to respond to widespread sexual misconduct.”

Owens had been the executive director of the Kenyan group Children Of God Relief Institute (COGRI), the Kenyan board that runs the orphanage and two other programs. Immediately after The Post sent her detailed questions in January about her handling of the allegations, Owens said she was no longer head of the orphanage. She has not answered any other questions since then. The head of COGRI did not respond to requests for comment.

Allegations of sexual abuse

“Nyumbani” — Swahili for “home” — was among Africa’s first orphanages for HIV positive children. Owens, an Irish missionary, co-founded the orphanage with a priest in 1992. She was a senior figure and took charge after he died in 2006. Francis Rodrigues, a chaplain at the orphanage and a member of the Kenyan oversight board, said more than 50,000 children have benefited from the orphanage and its programs, and that it had a “robust protocol for dealing with any cases of sexual abuse.”

The woman sent to Nyumbani when she was three arrived there shortly after it opened. She said a volunteer “brother” abused her several times a week during his six months at the orphanage. When she refused, she said the brother excluded her from outings.

Two years later, another “brother” abused her the same way, said the woman, now 31. “By the time I was leaving the home, two brothers had sexually abused me. I was destroyed,” she said.

The woman is one of six Nyumbani alumni who told The Post that they were sexually abused at the orphanage between 2002 and 2018; portions of their accounts are supported by the 2021 USAID investigation, which also identified other cases. The woman never told anyone, fearing she might be blamed, until she spoke years later with a whistleblower, who was a former foreign volunteer at the orphanage and who alerted the American fundraising board. The orphanage felt like a “zoo,” she said, where children were displayed to raise funds. “As long as we smiled for pictures, that is all that mattered.”

The woman’s best friend, now 29, said she was raped by an older boy in the orphanage when she was about nine in 2003. The boy was sent away, the best friend said, and she was given medical treatment but no counseling. The best friend said staff and other children openly discussed her rape at the time.

“The sisters look at it like I had committed the biggest sin,” she said.

Questions were also raised over the conduct of staff at the orphanage. Protus Lumiti, who became the orphanage’s chief manager, wrote a series of letters to a 14-year-old girl at the home that deeply disturbed another staff member. The letters, signed by Lumiti and seen by The Post, mostly begin “dear pretty” or “dear pretty girl” and are filled with compliments and discussions about how she is “different” from other children. One letter discusses orphans as young as 12 having sex. Later, he gifted her panties, said another girl living at the orphanage who witnessed the gift.

Staff member Arnold Khaemba, now 43, said he brought the letters to Owens in 2006 after the girl’s friends shared them with him. He said Owens did not take any action so he confronted Lumiti, who offered him money to destroy the letters. A former social worker at the orphanage, Hellen Oyombera, said that she was so concerned about the possibility of an intimate relationship, she once locked the girl inside a dormitory cottage to stop her from seeing Lumiti.

Lumiti has not responded to requests for comment made via telephone and email. A 2012 investigation commissioned by the orphanage cleared him of any wrongdoing. A second investigation commissioned by the Kenyan oversight board in 2021 resulted in his services being terminated, according to Rodrigues.

Separately, the USAID memo cited what it described as the sexual assault of two boys aged 13 and 12 by a 25-year-old man. Owens “did not see these incidents as assaults,” the memo said, referring to a culture of “victim-blaming” at the home.

A ‘very high risk practice’

The former residents that The Post interviewed said the home had hundreds of visitors annually.

Among the volunteers was British Airways pilot Simon Wood. The British board tried to ban him shortly after he took a photograph of two boys in the shower in 2003, according to British board member Helen Scott.

“As a UK board, we did all we could to ban Simon from Nyumbani, which was a big battle,” Scott said in an email to The Post. She said the orphanage continued to let him visit, first under the priest’s leadership then under that of Owens.

Four girls told The Post that Wood touched them inappropriately while pretending to play games. A former Nyumbani resident confirmed he saw Wood touch the girls on multiple occasions. The former resident said Wood introduced him to pornography when he was about nine, and said he knew of around a dozen survivors who said they were abused by Woods at Nyumbani.

In 2013, acting on a tip, Scotland Yard arrested Simon Wood at London’s Heathrow Airport on suspicion of child sex abuse at multiple orphanages, including Nyumbani. British media claimed police found thousands of pictures of naked children on his laptop. Wood killed himself before entering a plea. The former resident said he was aware of an investigation, but was never questioned. “Whenever the investigators were coming to the orphanage, Protus (Lumiti) would give me 200 shillings bus fare to go home,” he said.

The USAID memo called the orphanage’s response to the complaints about Wood “completely inadequate,” and noted volunteers continued to have free access to children, a “very high-risk practice.”

Complaints about an affiliated facility

USAID awarded at least $29 million from 1996 to 2022 for two projects associated with the orphanage: Lea Toto, a community outreach program providing assistance and medical care for HIV+ children in Nairobi’s low-income communities, and Nyumbani Village, a model village east of the capital caring for HIV+ children, orphans and the elderly whose parents or caregivers died of AIDS. The two programs were run by COGRI, which also ran the orphanage. Owens was head of COGRI after the priest died.

Sexual and physical abuse occurred at the Nyumbani Village, according to two former staff members. One of the former employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said that two students said they were impregnated by teachers between 2018 and 2020. “If any of the girls were thought to be pregnant, they would be taken to the police station and beaten until they said who the father of the child was,” he said.

A Kenyan volunteer said she was also sexually assaulted by a Kenyan Catholic priest in 2018 at the Nyumbani Village. She told The Post she reported the assault to Owens but did not see any action taken.

Two members of the U.S. fundraising board of Nyumbani, which learned of the allegations from the Irish volunteer, resigned afterward. One, Sage Givens, said “inquiries into the situation were met with stonewalling and hostility.” The other, Minne Kane, said the following in her resignation letter:

“If sexual abuse of a … [foreign] volunteer is dealt with in this cursory fashion, I have to wonder what protection from this perpetrator or others like him there is for the Kenyan children in the Village, or even at the Home.”

Emails among U.S. board members showed that nine months after the accusations were made, the Irish victim had not been told who would investigate, what the outcome was, or where the priest was. The victim felt Owens did not respond “in a respectful or caring manner,” the emails showed.

In a statement, the U.S. board’s lawyer said it had raised concerns about sexual abuse with Owens and the Kenyan management board and had asked that the priest be removed from pastoral duties. The Kenyan board responded that it had “determined at its April 2019 meeting that the Village Incident did not warrant further investigation or further communications with the volunteer,” the lawyer for the U.S. board said.

The head of the Kenyan board has not responded to emails from The Post requesting comment.

Allegations brought to the board

Over the years, former volunteer Ted Neill, an American who lived at the orphanage from 2002 to 2004, had heard multiple stories of abuse from former residents he kept in touch with.

In 2021, he sent a dossier containing detailed allegations to the U.S. board of Nyumbani. (The Post has seen the dossier.) The Kenyan board commissioned an investigation in 2021 but refused to share the findings, according to documents shared by the lawyer for the U.S. board. The report, delivered in October 2021, recommended forcing Owens into early retirement, firing Lumiti, and turning any evidence of crimes over to law enforcement, the documents show. Kenya’s board declined to share the report with The Post, which has not seen it.

The U.S. board’s lawyer said the U.S. board stopped fundraising for the orphanage in 2021 and encouraged Owens to step down. That same year, Kenyan police investigated allegations against Nyumbani Orphanageand Nyumbani Village, according to USAID and American board emails. USAID also investigated the projects and subsequently pulled all funding. A USAID spokesperson told The Post, “The serious allegations … are deeply concerning.”

Owens was forced into early retirement but tried to return, according to court documents. The Kenyan oversight board went to court in Nairobi to enforce her dismissal and ordered security guards to bar her from the grounds, court documents show.

Now Owens is gone, and Nyumbani is still running on private donations. But the former residents who have been abused say they have been left to fend for themselves.

The woman who was abused by two “brothers”, was sent to foster care at age 18, where she said she was psychologically abused. In college, she said she was raped by a male colleague. She reported it to the college administration – the first time she had ever reported a rape.

The youth who said he was abused by Simon Woods said he suffers from suicidal thoughts and fears he may commit abuse himself. He said he spends his days pacing the streets because he cannot stay around children alone.