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Young white woman walking hand in hand with African child.
Some African countries are seeking to replace orphanages with family-based care. himarkley/E+ via Getty Images

Whether or not a man convicted of abusing African ‘orphans’ is exonerated, the missionary system that brought him to Kenya was always deeply flawed

Matthew Durham, a young missionary from Oklahoma, was convicted in 2015 of raping three girls and molesting a boy at the Upendo Children’s Home. He had volunteered at the Kenyan orphanage from 2012 to 2014.

A federal jury found Durham guilty under a 2003 law that makes crimes committed against children abroad punishable in the United States, and U.S. District Court Judge David L. Russell sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

Durham has always maintained his innocence, and his legal team say they now have evidence to prove it. Several of the children who testified against Durham – now young adults – came forward in 2021 to say that he never abused them. Rather, they allege that they and other residents at the children’s home were coached, beaten and coerced by Kenyan orphanage staff to fabricate stories of sexual abuse and give false testimony against Durham.

In 2022, Durham’s legal team filed a motion with the Western District Court of Oklahoma giving evidence of the children’s new testimonies and requesting that the court overturn Durham’s conviction and vacate his sentence. Although the judge denied Durham’s petition based on a legal technicality, his legal team has appealed to the 10th Circuit Court in Denver.

As a historian who studies evangelical missions in Africa, including missionaries’ efforts to “save” African children, I have spent much of the last five years trying to make sense of this case. Any way you look at it, both the initial allegations against Durham and the new claims of abuse and false testimony are tragic.

As Durham waits to see how the courts will rule, I believe his story offers an opportunity to examine the system that made the very existence of this orphanage, Durham’s visits to it, and the competing claims about him, possible.

2 centuries of ‘white saviors’

The Western obsession with African orphans began in the 1830s, when British and European mission organizations started working in eastern Africa – the same region where Durham would volunteer nearly 200 years later.

The Bible’s call “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” prompted these early humanitarians to focus on working with children who had been kidnapped, orphaned or otherwise made vulnerable through the raiding and warring that fueled the Indian Ocean slave trade. Many of these children ended up at mission-run orphanages or residential schools, which were supported by Western donors and, at times, their governments.

Critics of these interventions, such as the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, alleged that the missionaries’ focus on amassing converts blinded them to the well-being of children in their care.

For example, in the 1890s, a famine caused many children to seek support at an orphanage run by the Church Missionary Society at Freretown, near Mombasa, Kenya. When parents or relatives later tried to bring the children home, the missionaries refused to release them, believing they would lose converts and, significantly, the donations that supported their work.

The ‘orphan industrial complex’

Today, a similar fixation on profit is part of what motivates orphanage founders, travel companies that promote “orphan tourism” and the Western donors, missionaries and travelers that support them. Experts call this the “orphan industrial complex.”

This is a system wherein efforts to care for vulnerable children become entangled with the business interests of the individuals and institutions involved. Paradoxically, research shows that orphanage founders, tour companies and mission organizations often benefit most when the goal of serving vulnerable children is not accomplished.

One can’t be in the business of “saving” orphans if there are no orphans to be saved. So savvy orphanage founders and their sponsors often lie about the numbers and the backgrounds of the children under their care.

In fact, around 80% of the 8 million children in residential care around the world are not actually orphans, at least not by the commonly understood definition of a child who has lost both parents. The majority of these children have at least one living parent or extended families that could, with the right support, care for them at home. This includes orphanage residents in Kenya, where Durham worked.

One way children end up at orphanages like Upendo is through a form of trafficking in which recruiters take children from their families, often under false pretenses, and sell them to orphanage proprietors. Others are enticed with promises of free education, or are taken from the streets and housed without government knowledge.

Harming children

Researchers have found that children raised in residential care facilities are often stigmatized and experience developmental delays. There is also a large amount of evidence that children who live in orphanages – especially if they have disabilities – face much higher risks of violence, abuse and neglect than other kids.

One study of six low-income countries, including Kenya, found that 50.3% of children in orphanages experienced sexual abuse.

Further, Western missionaries and volunteers are encouraged to behave toward “orphans” in ways that further increase their risk of abuse. Pulling children aside for one-on-one time, initiating close physical contact and buying them gifts are often referred to encouragingly as ways of “loving on” orphanage residents.

From a child-protection perspective, these behaviors are also potential warning signs of grooming by a sexual predator and can numb children to potential risks.

Some governments in Europe, Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean are trying to phase out these orphanages, as well as in some African countries like Kenya. The country where Durham went several times for short stints as a volunteer is attempting to replace residential children’s homes with family-based, foster and community-based care over the next decade.

Organizations such as Africa Impact and Projects Abroad, two U.S.-based companies that organize volunteer opportunities on the continent, have phased out orphanage tourism programs.

An entire system on trial

The conviction of a white missionary for child abuse isn’t unprecedented. Like Durham, Gregory Dow, an American who had run another Kenyan orphanage, was convicted in 2015 of sexually abusing some of its young residents. Daniel Stephen Johnson, of Coos Bay, Oregon, was sentenced to life in prison in 2019 for sexually abusing children in Cambodia.

Other such offenders, including Richard Huckle and Simon Harris, have gone from the U.K. to orphanages in low-income countries and sexually abused the children they were supposedly there to help.

There is also a sordid cast of missionary organizations and local proprietors of orphanages in low-income countries that commit crimes while purporting to do good.

But these new claims by the Upendo survivors are unique because they illuminate the various forms of violence to which children in residential care are exposed both by missionaries and the very people purporting to protect them.

According to the legal documents and news coverage I’ve reviewed, the former orphanage residents who recanted their testimonies against Durham haven’t said why orphanage staff told them to lie. It would be a tragedy if it turns out Durham has been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, but regardless of whether he is eventually exonerated, I believe it is ultimately the children who will have suffered the most.

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