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New urban parenting: Are 24-hour care homes the answer?

“I found my baby [then] five months old with a clot in the eye. Five months! At five months, a child cannot talk, cannot really do something harmful to the maid but I found her with a clot in the eye and marks of a slap. And this is a maid who was extremely good when I was around, and I never thought she would do this to a child,” mother-of-two Lisa Lutalo said.

Lutalo is also founder and CEO of Crystals International School Muyenga and pretty much sums up the reality of Uganda’s urban parenting dilemma. Parents like never before, face the dilemma of balancing career and their parenting roles as the economics increasingly have no patience for stay-at-home parents.

To balance both, the most viable option is to seek the services of a maid or relative. Trouble is, this arrangement is turning out to be one of the most abusive for the child.

“[My husband and I) found there was something lacking in Uganda. Unlike in the village, in the city, relatives don’t have time. If you’re to have relatives, they will only be there at night. There’s no room for not studying or not working in the city,” Lutalo told The Observer.

When she had her first child, Crystal, in 2014, it dawned on Lutalo that “maids are a necessary evil”.

According to her, a small percentage of maids are good, but the bad ones are pure evil. In August 2015 Crystals International School was born, admitting children aged six months and older for 24-hour services. Like a ‘boarding baby care centre’.

She says except for exceptional cases, they discourage mothers from bringing in younger babies, but some mothers do, nevertheless.

“We looked at a case when a parent is sick and is admitted in the hospital. First of all, the housemaid is tired from the day’s chores, you are admitted in the hospital [and] you don’t have a relative to take care of the child. What happens? Do you just leave the child with a tired housemaid?” she said.

“We looked at parents who work upcountry in non-family zones. We have parents who work in Sudan, we have parents who work in Dubai. We also looked at relatives who lack a support system of relatives...”

The Children's bathroom at The Cradle, a 24 hour childcare centre 

Because some people take looking after a travelling relative’s child as a cash cow, more and more parents with jobs in non-family zones turn to arrangements such as Crystals. According to Lutalo, having a child does not mean one’s career should stop.

Like Lutalo, Manuela Pacutho Mulondo the founder of The Cradle, in Ntinda, says the responsibility of having a child should never hamper any woman’s career progress. The Cradle was established in 2014 as a kindergarten. But after her Mandela Washington fellowship in the USA, Pacutho returned with new ideas.

The Cradle was transformed into a childcare centre where parents can bring in children for Shs 35,000 (6am-6pm or 6pm-6am) for registered members and Shs 50,000 for the unregistered.

Pacutho claims between 300 and 400 children have gone through her centre that focuses on stimulating growth. Six learning centres – dramatic centre, where kids mimic anything from the outside world and give it their childhood version; the art centre which involves a lot of colouring and painting; the manipulative centre that involves puzzles and working of the little fingers; the reading centre; the block (toys) centre and the science centre.

Each parent who brings in a child is immediately signed up to the WhatsApp group and a mobile app that includes the CEO (Pacutho), the chief care officer, the nanny and an operations officer. On these platforms, daily reports and comments about each child’s progress are shared.

Fancy and well-structured as all this seems, Pastor Ruth Kahawa of Tororo-based Smile Africa believes God should immediately come and rescue Africa and its absentee parents.

Imported cultures such as these 24-hour care homes, she said, are the cause of the “current crippled society.”

“Nowadays it’s all about the money. If one parent is going to Dubai, what has happened to the other parent or relatives?” she asked, decrying the broken families that lead to broken societies and values.

Kahwa herself has been running Smile Africa as an orphanage since 1996 until recently when she got ‘converted’ and is now against institutionalized childcare. She is now an advocate for rehoming (foster care) for the children rather than orphanages. And to her, 24-hour childcare homes are no different from orphanages.

“They will give it all kinds of names but that is still an orphanage. How different are the 24-hour childcare homes from the orphanages we’re trying to close?” she asked.

The children's beddings at a 24-hour childcare centre 

The United Nations (UN) is pushing for the de-institutionalization of orphanages because of the detrimental effect on the children even in their adulthood. Institutionalized childcare, experts argue, robs children of their identity and dignity since they are always bundled together and treated as a group.

“I thought I was doing the best for these children [in the orphanages] but looking at the adults later, they did not have answers to some of the questions.” said Pastor Kahwa, during a workshop in Nairobi, Kenya recently. “Because we have few workers [in the orphanage], the children are on a routine. If they are to have breakfast, all of them are having breakfast. If they are to sleep, all of them are using the toilet at the same time because that makes it easy for the workers. Then again you look at the limitations of things that the children in our orphanages are able to enjoy. They can’t pick a mango at will and enjoy it…institutions are not the best places for the children,” she said.

Out of the 67 children that were in the Smile Africa orphanage, 21 children have been resettled with their parents and guardians, or adoptive and foster care families. Kahwa said a former child who grew up in a Smile Africa orphanage said he hated the caregivers because they did not have true love and only took care of the children because they were paid.

Epaphrodite Nsabimana of Hope and Homes for Children in Rwanda said Rwanda is pushing for the de-institutionalization of all orphanages by 2020 with families being encouraged and supported to take up more children outside their biological spheres.

In Uganda, the push for deinstitutionalization of orphanages is being pushed by the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.


But even with 24-hour childcare homes, some parents are still failing on the basics such as being in the child’s life more than the paid caregivers. Lutalo said Crystals International School is still looking after one mother’s child for nearly three uninterrupted years now.

The unnamed mother works in Dubai and only comes to check on the child three days a year.

“She is a single mother. If she told you her story, you would wear her shoes and try to understand her situation. This is a person who practically saw a relative throw her baby,” Lutalo said. “By the time a parent sacrifices [that way], she has a reason. This is somebody who came back from her workplace without telling her family and she secretly saw her child being thrown about by her own brother. A baby of six months. Why would somebody throw a baby like that?”

While the Dubai-based mother’s situation may be understandable, Lutalo says some parents indeed just dump the kids and forget all about them.

“Sometimes it ceases to be about money. Some parents don’t communicate after dropping the child off, which somehow affects the child because once a child sees other children talking to their parents on WhatsApp video calls, on Skype, they tend to wonder, ‘where is my parent?’” Lutalo said.

For Pastor Kahwa, however, there is no justification for a mother opting for institutionalized childcare.

“Parents are moving too fast, they need to slow down. It’s all about the money now, the latest cars, mansions. Take care of your own children. We’re importing all sorts of things. The best gift any parent can ever give their child is being there for them, no matter the financial situation”, she said.

But to Pacutho, parenting and motherhood should not stop women’s career and education progress.

During her speech in July this year in South Africa where she also invited former American president Barack Obama on stage, she said although family is the pinnacle of every society’s development, it should never come at the expense of career progression.

“As a young lactating mother who had gained an education and pursued a fulfilling career, my deep desire to raise my children was confused for lack of professional ambition and seen as weakness. How could the ability to bring forth human life be the very thing that crushed my dream?” she told thousands of fellow YALI (Young African Leaders Initiative) participants.

What of mothers who work night shifts in hospitals, call centres…wouldn’t a care centre be the best option?

While the childcare institutions acknowledge the importance of male caretakers in children’s lives, they say they are not willing to recruit ‘mannies’ as yet because of the sexual abuse risk that males pose even to their own children.

“It’s a risk we don’t want to take. As a mother, I would not want to have male relatives stay over at my place… When you hear children complaining of rape and defilement, they are complaining of first-line cousins, uncles, and houseboys – people around them. It is a risk we don’t want to take,” Lutalo said.

Even then, not many males are interested or studying early childhood development. And with weak background and security checks systems, mannies are not about to be recruited at childcare homes, Pacutho said.

Shifa Mwesigye, a mother of two, says there can never be a better caretaker than her mother and she would only consider childcare centres in rare circumstances and only for a few days.

Rita (not real names), however, is done with relatives taking care of her children. She said when she went to study for her master’s degree in the UK in the early 2000s, her daughter was fed by relatives on weight-enhancing steroids similar to those given to pigs.

Her sister-in-law was trying to show how well-fed and healthy looking her daughter was. She would rather trust a professional with her children, if such need ever arose again.


This article is part of ongoing research project on institutionalized childcare 

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