Listening to the Small Voice

Toward an orphan theology.

By Elizabeth J. A. Siwo-Okundi

I am a Luo woman from Kendu Bay, Kenya, a small town located near Lake Victoria. When I was completing my master of divinity degree at Boston University School of Theology, I was required to select a field education site. I wanted to return to Kenya and work in my community. My mother knew of my love for children, so she encouraged me to inquire at the Homa Bay Children’s Home, located near the school that I had once attended and near the hospital where my mother had worked as a nurse. I rushed to complete my final papers and submit them early so that I could travel to Kenya with my father and visit the site during the December holiday. My father, uncle, and I met with the leaders of the home to learn how they cared for orphans. They were surprised and delighted that a community member would rather volunteer at home than abroad.

In summer 2004, I returned to Luoland and began my fieldwork. Each day was filled with success and sadness, hope and despair. It was not unusual for my colleagues and me to travel for two or three hours by foot, bicycle, and bus to visit one child. Wherever the children were, there we took ourselves: schools, hospitals, courthouses, burial sites, marketplaces, and remote villages. The work required us to transcend professional boundaries as well as geographic ones, because the children were so many and their needs were so great. By necessity, I became at once minister, social worker, nurse, lawyer, teacher, advocate, and parent. I held underweight newborn twins in my arms and joined my colleagues in prayers for them. I talked with teenagers who were determined to care for their younger siblings so that they would not be separated from each other. I listened to a poor widow beg us to help her care for her grandchild, for whom she obviously had no means of support. I went on a cross-district chase to urge a father to care for his child upon the death of his estranged wife. I negotiated with schools to allow us more time to gather school fees so that children would not be dismissed from classes. I watched as tradition clashed with modernization and accusations of witchcraft caused division. I held an expressionless child with severe malaria and tried to comfort him as the doctor worked to revive his body. And at times, I simply bathed, fed, and played with the babies. Each child became my own.

I returned home each evening and was welcomed by crowds of children who were gathered at my family’s homestead, eagerly awaiting my return. They were anxious to learn about the children I had encountered and the places I had traveled. One afternoon, I received the painful news that one of our babies had died. The child’s mother and older sibling had already died, leaving the young father all alone. I was overcome with grief to the point that food became tasteless and nothing could comfort me. I sat at the side of my grandmother’s kitchen and began to draw figures on the ground with a short stick. One of our village children came over, sat down next to me, and asked me what was the matter. He had never seen me look so sad. I told him that one of my babies had died. He remained quiet beside me. Imitating me, he picked up a stick and drew figures on the ground. Another child ran toward us and, in the usual style of greeting me, began to sing my name. The first child said, “Shhhhh! Her baby died.” The second child also sat quietly beside me. One by one, other children heard the news and came to sit quietly beside me. Within minutes, a crowd of children had gathered to attend to me in my grief and to do so in the only way they knew how. It later dawned on me that they were all too familiar with death. All of them were orphans.

Summer 2004 was not my first encounter with orphans, nor was it my first opportunity to care for them. My parents have long demonstrated to me the importance of caring for orphan-children1 and vulnerable community members. Year after year, I have watched them quietly pay school fees for orphans, build homes for them and their widow-women caretakers, host them in our home, assist widow-women with funeral expenses, and provide counseling and basic needs. It was my parents’ compassion and commitment that first led me to understand more fully the complexity of orphan status. Though my experience had already made me aware that the numbers of orphan-children had reached crisis levels, my research confirmed my worst fears.

There are more than 140 million orphans in 93 countries around the world.2 In past times, orphan status was more random and sporadic, and communities were mostly able to care for their orphan-children. But recent years have witnessed the global increase of orphan status because of multiple, interrelated crises: natural and environmental disasters, wars and civil wars, acts of terror, political instability, and pandemics. The HIV/AIDS pandemic alone has had a devastating impact. According to a UNICEF report: “The number of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa would be declining were it not for HIV/AIDS. But because of the disease’s spread, the number of orphans is increasing exponentially.” Africans are especially vulnerable to the orphan crisis, since “8 out of every 10 children who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS live in sub-Saharan Africa.”3 In Kenya alone, by the year 2010, the total number of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS is expected to more than double, increasing the number of orphans there to 2.2 million.4 Countless families and communities are struggling to cope with this dramatic increase of orphan-children. These children need support, protection, food, shelter, clothing, education, and health care.

After my time at the Homa Bay Children’s Home, I decided to do something active and practical to address these troubling conditions, so I created a foundation, Orphan Wisdom, Inc., which provides care and support to orphans in Kenya in times of peace and in times of crisis. During this same time, I came to see the great need for Christians, theologians, and religious leaders to be prepared to address the orphan crisis publicly, and to do so from a culturally relevant, biblically informed, and theologically responsible perspective.5 Though the Bible specifically mandates care for orphans, Christian theological engagement concerning orphans is lacking. Some scholars have mentioned orphan status when writing about biblical figures, but none have devoted significant attention to it.

I find myself drawn to bring forth the voices of orphan-children wherever they are to be found. I seek to engage what I call the “small voice”—the unnoticed, unnamed, silenced, and marginalized voice in biblical texts—and to place that engagement within African religion and theology. My current research interests involve developing a theological framework for identifying and examining the small voice, preaching with the small voice, and understanding the implications of the small voice for homiletics, ministry, and social policy. In bridging practical theology and homiletics, I seek to address the silencing of African women and children, particularly orphans, widows, and victims of violence in Kenya, and to advocate with and for them. I aim to do this by drawing upon my personal experiences and the stories of orphans in my community, analyzing biblical mandates and passages concerning orphans, and examining the findings through a culturally specific and sensitive framework that calls for advocacy and public policy focused on orphans. Through hearing and responding to the small voice, I seek to develop what I call an “orphan theology.”

Relationship to African Theology

Liberation theologies, including African theology, were developed in part because the existing and dominant theologies of the time could not adequately capture the particular experiences of each community. It was necessary to develop theologies that placed the concerns of different communities at the center in order to legitimize their experiences and help them to harness the power of their own theological interpretations. Orphan theology follows the pattern of development established by liberation theologies, with this group needing its own expression rather than simply fitting within the framework of existing theologies.

What are the unique claims of orphans in such a project? Orphans are a group specifically and frequently named in the Bible as needing care and protection. Indeed, individual and communal consequences are spelled out for not caring for them. Moreover, orphans are present throughout the world and not limited to a specific region, and, as I have already described, recent events have led to an explosion of children with orphan status. Thus, the explicit biblical call to care for orphans, the contemporary corporate nature of events and situations leading to orphan status, and the crisis therein demand a theology specific to orphans. Given its newness, this work is preliminary, yet it has implications for numerous communities who are struggling to care for orphans and are seeking guidance through critical theological reflection.

As an African woman, I enter orphan theology from an African perspective that is informed by orphans in my community. I therefore find it critical to unearth African definitions of orphan status and responses to orphans. I, like Daisy N. Nwachuku, accept John S. Mbiti’s (1979) unapologetic definition of African theology to mean “theological reflection and expression by African Christians” through oral theology, written theology, and symbolic theology.6 For me, the term “Christian” includes both the various ways in which Africans identify as Christians and aspects of traditional African religions and worldviews.

African Definitions and Responses

In Western contexts, the term “orphan” is nearly extinct—it seems antiquated and taboo. When the term is employed in the West, it is largely considered to be a child who has lost both parents and has been absorbed by an institutionalized foster-care system. Yet most studies in Africa concerning African orphans use the term frequently and base their definitions of the term on two factors: parental loss and age. In such resources, an orphan is defined as a child, less than age 15 (or 18, depending on the study), whose mother, father, or both parents have died. I extend this definition to include situations in which the primary caregiver and/or members of the kinship group are alive but absent, unable, or unwilling to care for their children. Despite there being legal definitions of “child” that vary from nation to nation, many African communities (mine included) traditionally based age upon one’s social maturity and economic independence rather than on the changing of a calendar year. Because this worldview is evident in the lived reality of orphans, I tend to dismiss the age range provided in the majority of studies.

It is widely argued that traditional African societies did not have “orphans,” since the care of children whose parents had died was generally absorbed in one of many ways: by the kinship group/extended family, through various forms of marriage, by the greater community, and through other creative and socially acceptable arrangements. However, many such arguments were made well before the impact of HIV/AIDS was felt in Africa. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has led to the weakening (and in some cases total collapse) of traditional family structures. Traditional arrangements assumed the stability of the kinship group/extended family and community. They also assumed random and sporadic death, not deaths on a massive scale, from numerous causes. But these are no longer the realities for African orphans and communities, given HIV/AIDS. Describing the recent changes in orphan care, a Luo widow-woman in her 50s stated:

In the past, people used to care for the orphans and loved them, but these days, they are so many, and many people have died who could have assisted them, and therefore orphanhood is a common phenomenon, not strange. The few who are alive cannot support them.7

This crisis of children who possess orphan status has placed tremendous pressures on communities and has attacked traditional response systems. In attempting to respond, families and communities are struggling with the degree and size of the crisis. Studies reveal that in “nearly every sub-Saharan African country, extended families have assumed responsibility for more than 90 percent of orphaned children,” and many of them care for more than one orphan. It is also important to note that assuming responsibility for an orphan does not necessarily mean “adequately caring for” an orphan. Numerous studies indicate that basic needs, including food, medical care, clothing, and education, commonly go unmet among these children. For example, among households with orphans in a region of Tanzania, almost 40 percent of them could not meet their basic needs. Moreover, “households with orphans are more likely to become poorer,”8 especially since orphans are increasingly more likely to be living in female- and grandparent-headed households—whose status is vulnerable in many societies.9 Other orphans live with non-relatives, in institutions, or on the streets. Caring for orphans has placed a great strain on the emotional and economic systems of families—pointing once again to the need for an orphan theology that comes from African realities but is based in biblical sources.

Biblical Definitions and Responses

In an interview with Jon D. Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, he informed me that orphan status in the Ancient Near East was determined by parental loss, primarily the death of a father. Further complicating this definition, orphan status was claimed only after all family support structures had been exhausted—a child could be fatherless, but the presence of an extended family meant that the child did not technically qualify as an orphan. Thus, someone defined as an orphan was the most vulnerable person in society, because she or he had lost all options for protection and support ordinarily provided by the family and extended family.

How did an orphan receive care in the Ancient Near East? Levenson explained that, ideally, the king/monarch and other leaders assumed the responsibility of caring for orphans (and widows),10 because they were the most vulnerable and defenseless in society. However, if the monarch failed to protect orphans, they called upon God. The God of the Hebrew Bible is the defender of the vulnerable and is explicitly described as a “father11 of orphans and protector of widows” (Psalm 68:5).12 Since God is intimately concerned about the welfare of orphans and widows, it is not surprising that these groups are mentioned at several points throughout the Bible. Yet the Ancient Near Eastern model of orphan care in its ideal form places emphasis on the government’s responsibility to care for the orphans. Such a model challenges present-day governments (in Africa and elsewhere) to respond to the increase of orphans by assuming the responsibility of caring for this vulnerable group.

The Bible is filled with orphan imagery. At least 13 books of the Bible mention the fatherless—typically alongside widows, aliens, sojourners, and/or the poor. The first mention of the fatherless is in Exodus 22:21-24, in which God warns:

You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

In this command, which takes the form of social legislation and is part of the Book of the Covenant, God assumes the position of protector of the defenseless orphans and widows. Given the command’s status as law and the dire consequences that will result from disobedience, God is depicted as having extraordinary concern for the orphans and widows of the time, and demanding that the people also share and act upon that concern. At the end of the long list of commands (of which this is one), Moses13 takes the Book of the Covenant, reads it to the people, and they respond with the commitment: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:7).

The prophet Isaiah also describes orphan status and the consequences for mistreating orphans. He exhorts the people of Israel to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). The corruption of the people and their leaders has led them to abandon the vulnerable in society, and for that, they are brought to account: “Your princes are rebels and companions are thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (Isaiah 1:23). There are stated consequences from God for this lack of empathy: “I will pour out my wrath on my enemies . . . I will turn my hand against you . . . rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together” (Isaiah 1:24-31). As in Exodus, God’s particular and extraordinary concern for orphans is explicit here, and anyone who does not share this concern is subject to judgment and severe punishment.

Orphan imagery is further evoked to express the defenselessness of people who are not necessarily orphans but who can relate to the orphan experience because they have been marginalized or displaced. When the people of Israel lament the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, they liken themselves to orphans: “We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows” (Lamentations 5:3). In their grief, they describe their own orphan status as one in which their inheritance has been given to strangers, their homes have been given to aliens, they must pay for water to drink, and they have no rest (this description is all too similar to present-day experiences of African orphans). Once again, people who are in positions of vulnerability and defenselessness appeal to God for help.

Although most references to orphan status and occurrences of orphan imagery are found in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the New Testament book of James (1:26-27) provides the final biblical mandate concerning orphans:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

This mandate to care for orphans and widows is rightly placed within a larger exhortation to be doers and not just hearers of God’s word. This is why orphan theology must be a theology of activism.

A Small Voice Reading of Biblical Passages

Critical, creative, and culturally relevant engagement with the Bible is essential to developing an orphan theology. A “small voice” exploration of biblical texts intentionally uses language and imagery that is accessible to all people and comes from within their own cultural settings. To show how this kind of reading can be done, I will engage three biblical stories concerning orphans—2 Kings 4:1-7, Esther, and 2 Kings 5:1-5—from the small voice perspective. These three texts exemplify the tremendous challenges faced by orphans and speak specifically to the African context.14 They raise important small voice issues, including poverty, sexual violence, and political violence, and pose questions concerning the care of orphans, given these perils.

Readings of 2 Kings 4:1-7 often use the text to illustrate the obedience of a nameless widow-woman to Elisha’s instructions, focusing on the miracle that results from her faith and obedience. A small voice engagement with this text shows that the miracle occurs because the woman’s orphan-children—we are not told how many children she has or how old they are—are intimately involved in helping her complete the prophet’s instructions. In such a reading, this text illustrates the inseparability of orphan and widow status. When the widow-woman learns that her orphan-children are going to be sold into slavery unless she pays off her debt, she immediately calls upon the prophet Elisha. We are not told the nature of the debt, but an African reading might attribute it to exhaustive funeral costs. It is common in African societies for people to have to spend tremendous resources in hosting funeral guests. After learning that the widow-woman has “nothing in the house, except a jar of oil,” Elisha gives her a list of instructions and tells her to shut the door behind her. The family, including the orphan-children, follows Elisha’s instructions and the oil miraculously multiplies. They are able to sell the oil, pay their debts, and live on the remainder of the money.

What is most important about this story from an orphan theology perspective is that it highlights the severe economic poverty experienced by many orphans. Moreover, it suggests that orphans are necessary participants in rescuing their families from economic debt. The widow-woman had “nothing in the house, except a jar of oil,” no food, no water, no money for school fees—”nothing.” This story also shows the extreme vulnerability of a family in this situation as they struggle to pay their debts, and the stigma associated with asking for help from neighbors and others. Because of the transformation that takes place, the widow-woman was able to keep her orphan-children. In Africa and other areas with profound poverty, many families end up sending their children into the deceitful hands of those who promise to relieve them of debt, only to discover that their children are endangered and never to return. It is also important to note that in her plight, the widow-woman turns first to a religious leader, not to any other source of potential support. Her act is true to today; many African families expect religious leaders, and by extension the church, to be able to assist them in some way. The church must be prepared to respond to the pleas of orphans responsibly and compassionately, by taking into account the family’s limited resources. Basic material needs are among the first needs that must always be addressed for orphan-children.

In developing an orphan theology, the story of Hadassah/Esther has particular implications for orphaned girl-children and children who are double orphans (that is, both their parents have died). Orphan-girls are more likely to become the objects of sexual violence, given their double marginal status as female and orphan. This is precisely what happens in the story of Esther.

In the verse introducing Esther, we learn—twice in one verse (2:7)—that Esther is an orphan:

Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is Esther, his cousin, for she had neither father nor mother; the girl was fair and beautiful, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter.

Esther’s orphan status precedes the reference to her beauty and overwhelms this verse. Yet scholars rarely mention Esther as orphaned. Even when they do, they fail to give particular attention to her orphan status and focus instead upon her physical beauty. We are not told how Esther’s parents died, but for double orphans in Africa today, the cause is often HIV/AIDS. According to studies, “an especially important and distinctive characteristic of HIV/AIDS in regard to orphaning is that aids is more likely than other causes of death to create double orphans.”15

Although the story of Esther has been romanticized, her life story is fraught with difficulties. When Queen Vashti is banished from the throne, Mordecai—whose intentions are hotly debated by scholars—seems to be looking out for Esther’s best interests by granting her the opportunity to become the king’s new wife. However, the “application process” consists of girls engaging in sexual activity with the king and being judged for their beauty and performance, the price of which is deemed to be small in comparison to the opportunity to become queen. The story suggests that through this avenue, Esther can save herself, have a better life, and save her people.16

In a small voice reading, Esther’s story reminds us that sex for potential salvation is daily presented to or forced upon orphan-girls. Just as Esther was subjected to sexual abuse as the way to salvation, it is not uncommon for prostitution and sexual slavery to become the means of income for some orphan-girls in Africa, who are then exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and physical violence. Rape, sexual exploitation, and loss of identity are often their plight. Adoptive caregivers and communities may not always know how best to support these girls, but they must learn to be vigilant so as not to find themselves in a predator’s twisted plot disguised as salvation. Moreover, there is a lesson here for those in power. Rather than sanctioning the sexual abuse and exploitation of girls (as did the king in Esther’s time), present-day African governments must care for and protect these girls. This care includes providing them with opportunities for education rather than exploitation.

In 2 Kings 5:1-5, a girl who is taken captive from a military raid is made to serve the wife of Naaman (the commander of the army of the king of Aram). The girl’s voice is buried in the story of Naaman’s miraculous cure from leprosy, but if we engage this text in a small voice reading, we learn that it is her voice that leads Naaman to seek and secure a healing from the prophet. We can infer that the girl’s parents have been killed in the war or left behind during a raid. As such, her story is particularly important for children orphaned by war and political crisis, which is all too common today. We are led to ask the kinds of questions that need to be asked about children in similar circumstances today: What kind of violence did she witness and experience in the midst of the war, and how did that impact her psychosocial state? As a forced domestic servant/slave, she may also have been subjected to some form of sexual servitude. In spite of all of these traumas, this nameless girl somehow manages to use her faith (perhaps the faith of her family) to comfort her and to offer hope to her master. We never learn if her status improves as a result of her having helped Naaman, or if she is simply forced to return to her daily duties.

War and political violence have a profound impact on the lives of many orphaned children. Children orphaned by war and political violence are deprived of food and education, forced to cross national borders at gunpoint, and exposed to diseases and physical abuse, including gang rapes by military leaders and officials. They themselves are forced to participate in violent acts, often being trained as child soldiers. It is perhaps not surprising that the highest percentage of orphans is in countries with high HIV/AIDS populations, where armed conflict also exists.17 I have seen these realities firsthand. Immediately following the December 2007 presidential election in Kenya, many children were separated from their families in the midst of postelection violence. These children witnessed the killing of their parents, siblings, and neighbors. Many were left speechless as the horrors of the violence expanded to include hunger, homelessness, sexual assault, and countless other crimes. Their voices (and those of the orphans in northern Uganda, Liberia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other areas) lead us toward an orphan theology. The devastating grief and suffering these children experience is calling for us to protect them.

Toward an Orphan Theology

In their original contexts, the biblical texts focus on the voices of the adults and leaders, privileging those voices over those of the orphan-children. Two of the three orphans are nameless. Yet the adult-centeredness of the stories and the namelessness of the orphan-children indicate all the more that a small voice engagement is essential. These texts point to power differentials that determine who gets to speak and be heard, and who does not. The silencing of orphan voices, and the way these children are only allowed to speak through or because of adults or leaders, needs to be named and addressed. Orphan theology learns from the small voice of orphans and uses their experiences to build a meaningful dialogue that leads to advocacy with and for orphans. It places the personal experiences of orphans at the forefront of the story and uses their voices to inform social justice policies and public Christianity. Just as Naaman listened to the voice of the orphan-girl and was fully able to demonstrate his religious faith, those of us who claim to be believers must also listen to the voices of orphans and follow our biblical mandate to act responsibly with and for them.

What orphan theology does not do is to create a hierarchy of orphan status. At no point should the death or absence of a particular parent/caregiver, or the particular cause of orphan status, be a measure of the legitimacy of orphan status or experience. My small voice examination of biblical definitions leads me to notice that a hierarchy of orphan status has been created in the past as follows: class one orphans: death of father (fatherless); class two orphans: death of father and mother; class three orphans: death of mother. Class three orphans are not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, though we can reasonably assume that they existed at the time, even if they were not acknowledged. There are many problems with this classification system: it privileges the economic contributions and legal status of male-headed households, does not acknowledge the contributions of female-headed households, and dismisses the fact that the emotional loss experienced by a child is deep, whether he or she loses mother, father, or both parents. The above classification reduces orphan status to merely an economic strain placed on a male-headed household.

With a small voice engagement, God’s concern for the entire being of the orphan is made evident, including material needs, safety, and protection. Orphan theology does not seek to encourage children to imitate the actions of orphans in the Bible. Rather, it seeks to provide space for their voices to be heard in conversation with biblical orphans, thereby encouraging oral retellings of their own experiences. The voices of African children are critical in a small voice engagement; this cannot be a theological conversation confined to academic circles.

In this preliminary work, I have only touched upon the most central ideas concerning the development of an orphan theology. There are many questions that still need to be explored, including the implications of orphan theology for Christology (what was Jesus’ consideration of orphans?), and the implications of the use of adoption language in the Bible (particularly throughout Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians), since adoption is typically associated with orphan status. Moreover, I have not been able to discuss at length the various challenges that often come with orphan status, such as disability, rural/street/urban life, and multiple orphaning (which happens to children when caregiver after caregiver dies or is unable to care for them any longer).

The urgent need for the development and expansion of orphan theology is evident in the voices of the orphans themselves as they seek love, mercy, recognition, and protection. The more than 140 million orphans in 93 countries around the world and the scores of others who may not be counted are calling on religious leaders and theologians to examine biblical mandates and to read and preach about stories concerning orphans, with the voices of the orphans at the forefront of their efforts. Perhaps most important of all, they are crying out to communities to demonstrate their understanding of God as parent to the parentless and defender of the orphans.


  1. At times, I intentionally use the term “orphan-children” to emphasize the orphan aspect of the children’s experience. I do so cautiously, because I do not want to stigmatize children further and reduce them to the label, “orphan.” It would be best simply to call them “children,” or at times “children orphaned by . . . ,” but, as I note, the worldwide crisis of children with orphan status sometimes necessitates a focus on the orphan aspect of their experience. I also use “widow-woman” rather than simply “widow” for similar reasons—to emphasize the multiple dimensions of vulnerability women who are also widows experience.
  2. These figures only include children (ages 0-17) in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean; Children on the Brink 2004: A Joint Report on Orphan Estimates and Program Strategies (UNAIDS, UNICEF, and USAID 2006), 7.
  3. Africa’s Orphaned Generations (UNICEF, 2003), 9. This study notes, though, that “even without HIV/AIDS, the percentage of children who are orphans would be significantly higher in sub-Saharan Africa than in other regions of the world.”
  4. What Parliamentarians Can Do About HIV/AIDS: Action for Children and Young People (UNICEF, 2003).
  5. Though it is based in African Christian theology, this essay has implications for non-Christian faith traditions. For example, the prophet Muhammad was an orphan. An “orphan theology,” as such, could provide opportunities for interreligious dialogue and activism. It also has implications for other cultures besides African ones. “While sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of children who are orphans, the absolute numbers of orphans are much higher in Asia, which had 87.6 million orphans (due to all causes) in 2003, twice the 43.4 million orphans from all causes in sub-Saharan Africa.” Africa’s Orphaned Generations, 3.
  6. Daisy N. Nwachuku, “The Christian Widow in African Culture,” in The Will to Arise: Women, Tradition and the Church in Africa, ed. Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Musimbi R. Kanyoro (Orbis Books, 1992), 56.
  7. Erick Otieno Nyambedha, Simiyu Wandibba, and Jens Aagaard-Hansen, “Changing Patterns of Orphan Care Due to the HIV Epidemic in Western Kenya,” Social Science and Medicine 57 (2003): 306.
  8. Africa’s Orphaned Generations, 15, 20, 17.
  9. In Kenya, 65 percent of households caring for orphans are headed by females; Africa’s Orphaned Generations, 52. Because most current economical systems no longer support traditional means of caring for orphans, it is imperative that women (and grandparents) have the support and education to survive and thrive.
  10. In African societies, as in the Ancient Near East, it is nearly impossible to discuss orphan status without discussing widow status. The two are inextricably bound, as evidenced by the numerous biblical passages linking them and the lived experience of African communities. Moreover, widow status is not age-sensitive: widows are young and old. Karen L. King, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School, provided me with particular insight on the status of widows; Karen L. King, interview by author, Cambridge, Massachusetts, December 5, 2007.
  11. I have intentionally retained “father” language for God, because the Ancient Near East culture defined orphan status based on the death of the father. My doing so emphasizes the point that losing a father was the only way to be orphaned according to the criteria of the time. It further emphasizes the legal powers of men at the time and the disregard the culture showed for the death of the mother. Lastly, it lays the foundation for my later argument that we should not privilege the death of one parent over the other.
  12. All biblical citations are from The New Oxford Annotated Bible, With the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books [New Revised Standard Version], 3rd ed., ed. Michael M. D. Coogan (Oxford University Press, 2001).
  13. It is fitting that Moses, who was forced into an adoptive maternal relationship to save his life (Exodus 2:1-10), is the one selected to present to the people God’s care and concern for orphans.
  14. Africa is large and the African experience is diverse. However, there are some experiences that are common to many Africans.
  15. Children on the Brink, 11.
  16. As queen, Esther makes a decision that results in the killing of thousands of people (9:11-15). One must wonder if her own sexual abuse and the process of becoming queen had an impact on her development, such that she would be more likely to encourage violence.
  17. Africa’s Orphaned Generations, 11.

Elizabeth J. A. Siwo-Okundi, ThM ’08, is completing a PhD in practical theology with a concentration in homiletics at Boston University School of Theology. She is founder and president of Orphan Wisdom, Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports orphans in Kenya (orphanwisdominc.org). The author acknowledges and appreciates the contribution of Matthew Myer Boulton, Jacob K. Olupona, and the Rev. Septemmy Lakawa to this work.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.