Roseline Orwa, 46, is a childless widow and the founder of Rona Widows and Orphans Centre in Bondo, Siaya County. She lives with 27 children.
If you asked Roseline to sum up her life into a song, she would have Eunice Ogoma’s song “Nyasaye Marahuma” on replay.
“It’s a Dholuo song that talks about how God turned her pain into joy and traded her sad story with one of success and inspiration,” she offers.
While in her twenties, Roseline badly wanted to be a mother. There were pressures from her first ex-husband and relatives but she confesses that the greatest nudge was within her.
“In a scale of 10, my desire for children was at 20. I am this village girl who grew up believing that once you attain the right age for marriage and are actually married, what should follow next are children. ‘What is the value of a woman who cannot conceive?’ Having heard this line multiple times, I knew that without having my own, I had no value,” says the 2021 Aspen New Voices Fellow.
In desperate search for a solution, Roseline had three surgeries during her three years of marriage to her first husband.
“I had suffered endometriosis and my fallopian tubes were blocked. I sought answers from doctors and when they fell short, I knocked on herbalists’ doors. That didn’t work too and it led to the breakdown of my marriage,” she says.
Sunday, Kenyans and individuals from other countries marked Mother’s Day by extending gestures of appreciation to their mothers. Some bought gifts, another quarter sent money while others posted their mothers’ photos on the various social media platforms.
Mother’s Day has been marked since 1907 and is one of the most popular holidays.
At Roseline’s bed, tens of children gathered to wish her a “happy Mother’s Day.” These are children under her Rona Widows and Orphans Centre in Bondo.
She started the foundation in 2012, four years after the death of her second husband.
“When my husband died in 2008, it was one of the difficult seasons of my life. Suddenly, I was alone and the friends we had before he died were nowhere to be found. Back at my Wagoma village in Bondo, I had become the SI unit for bad luck. I am the last born in a family of seven and the only one without a child of my own. In my Dholuo language, women like me are called “Lur” to mean that no fruit can come out of women like us. We are compared to deserts. The stigma and rejection is real. The damning voice of “you’re not a woman enough” is such a great pain and can push a woman to the grave. Myself, I tried to end my life by suicide three times,” she reveals.
Roseline says the foundation started with eight women who would share the challenges they were facing as widows and encourage one another. At the same time, she came out publicly to share her battle with infertility and the desire for children.
“For a long time, I didn’t want to talk about it because this is an issue that cause women so much pain and is regarded private. However, when I came out, other childless women started to confide in me. Some women go to crazy lengths in search of children. It is shocking.”
The more Roseline advocated for widows and campaigned for cultural and policy change around the inequalities and stigma widows face, the more orphans thronged at her mother’s home to seek help.
“I celebrate my mother because besides standing with me when I left my first marriage and we had to return the dowry, she was still there for me when I returned home after the death of my second husband — she shared in my shame and insults. Through her support, I would feed the vulnerable in our community. After her death in 2015, I moved to our current location where I live with 27 children aged between eight and 18 years,” she offers, adding that American TV personality Oprah Winfrey was her inspiration for starting the foundation.
“During this time, I chanced upon an old video of Oprah talking about the academy she had opened for poor girls in South Africa. In the video, she said the girls gave her something that even her own children couldn’t and that her legacy was going to be about the people she touched,” says Roseline.
This became her turning point and instead of anguishing about children she could not have, she started passing on her motherly love to orphans and needy children from her community and afar.
“My friends tell me of the pain that comes with labour and I respond to them that in my current situation, it is like I labour every day. It is not easy to have 27 mouths depending on you for survival especially amidst the pandemic. Contrary to the assumption of many that individuals like myself run a children’s home with the backing of donors and sponsors, I am struggling. Were it not for my online friends who occasionally come through for us, it pains me to think what could happen to these children,” she says.
Through the children, she has silenced infertility and takes care of them as if they were her own.
“I have mothered my way to life. Some children are conceived, others are chosen. I am grateful that I chose to take care of them and in return, they’ve loved and given me fulfilment even without calling me “mama.”