Behind the high walls of a spacious house at Bakuli, a suburb about 5km west of Kampala city centre is Wakisa Ministries-- Uganda's only teenage pregnancy crisis centre.
The 27 girls we found here when we visited should normally be at school or at home with their families. Instead, each one of them is here with a little secret.
They are either nursing little babies or carrying them in their small tummies. Over the last 10 years, Wakisa Ministries has become a household name for taking in hundreds of distressed pregnant girls from around Uganda.
We found Vivian Kityo, the director of the centre talking to two of the girls in her office. They looked to be about 12 years old.
One of them; a short and chubby pre-teen with slightly darker-skin complexion has just returned from boarding school and still has her casual uniform on-- a blue T-shirt, red shorts and a maroon sweater wrapped around her shoulders. She also has a sage-green rosary hanging down her neck. She is actually 15 years old. The other girl is of lighter skin complexion with pre-teen acne dots on her face. She is in fact 10 years-old, heavily pregnant, and looks quite exhausted as she reclines on the sofa. Kityo says she is the youngest pregnant girl the centre has hosted in a decade.
Most girls who come here are usually above 15, although it is not unusual to find those aged 12 or 13, she says.
The older girl was returning from school one day when she met a man who used to work at the sand mine near her home in Wakiso District. He had never spoken to her before. Suddenly, she says, the man grabbed her arm. "What is going on?" the surprised girl asked. He did not answer.
"I am going to make an alarm if you do not let go," she warned him. But as she moved her hand to her mouth to start alarming, the man held that hand too. She does not know how it happened, but she does not recall what happened next.
"I somehow lost consciousness and woke up only to realise that I had been raped in the bush." With a lot of pain in her private parts, she walked home.
She told The Independent that she could not tell her mother because she feared her wrath. It was only when the pain became unbearable later that she told her about her ordeal.
Her mother immediately took her to hospital; where she was tested for HIV.
"The test was negative but the doctor told my mother that I was pregnant."
"But when we came back home my step father turned hostile and hurled insults at me and my mother."
She says he did not believe her story and kept insisting that it was her fault. He kicked her out of his home. She became desperate and even thought of committing suicide but her mother comforted her.
"I ended up keeping the pregnancy."
When her pregnancy turned four months, her mother escorted her to the nearest health centre for antenatal care. At the centre, the nurse referred her to Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala because she had started developing complications.
"At Mulago we met a nurse who knows 'Aunt' Vivian (Kityo). The nurse gave us her number and she advised us to talk to her. That is how I ended up here."
She stayed at the centre until she was eight months pregnant. Up to this point, she had been speaking clearly and occasionally played with her rosary. But she eventually got overcome with emotion, her lips trembled, and her eyes welled up with tears.
At eight months, the doctors at Mulago decided that she would not be able to push and they recommended a Caesarean section. At the age of 12, she got a baby girl. That was in 2012.
As the older girl told her story, the 10-year old, dressed in a black dress with white prints, seemed to be listening only half-attentively. Her story is quite similar.
It happened early in 2015 in her village in Mukono District, about 30km from Kampala. She was staying with her grandmother when she got raped by a big boy in her neighbourhood and became pregnant. She ended up at Wakisa Centre after a senior local government official from her village intervened. On Aug. 20 she too had a baby girl by caesarian section.
The baby was named Vivian, a very popular name most of the girls choose to name their baby girls. But she does not stay with her baby.
Under normal circumstances, she would by now have returned to her home village with the baby. But her mother requested Wakisa Ministries to find an orphanage where they could keep the baby because she could not take on this new responsibility.
"Her mother already has seven children, including one she is breastfeeding at the moment," Kityo says.
Although there was no space at the nearby Sanyu Baby's Home, baby Vivian found a home at another nearby orphanage called Malaika Babies Home. She will be visiting the baby twice a week.
When we ask how she feels about having the baby, she stares blankly and shrugs her shoulders. She says she feels fine and she is already looking forward to going back to the school 'aunt' Vivian has promised to take her.
It seems Kityo's life revolves around babies.
On the walls inside her office, there are pictures and photos of babies. Just behind her office door is a picture of a baby growing up in a womb.
"That is for me to explain to some of the girls (university girls) who come here thinking that they can pay all the money they have to abort."
"I explain to the girls that these are human beings who are still in the womb but once they are out, they will be like you and me." Uganda has the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in sub-Saharan Africa (25%) which reproductive health experts blame on poverty. Kityo says most of the girls brought at the centre are what you could refer to as 'problem children.' When you interview them; they will tell you, they have mothers who are living with step-fathers.
But Kityo adds that poor parenting is another contributing factor to the rising number of cases of incest in the country. For the 1000 cases she has seen at Wakisa, she thinks 40% have been as a result of incest.
"The mothers are running away from home after having fights with the fathers," she says, "We have had girls who are 13, 14 or 15 who have been abused by their fathers for a long time until the pregnancy reveals everything."
"Over 90% of the girls in the 10-13 age categories are usually victims of rape and incest," she says. That is what happened to these two girls. Although Uganda has a law against such cases, either as defilement (having sex with a girl under age of 18), rape, and incest, Wakisa Centre rarely pursues them.
Kityo says she started Wakisa Centre out of an experience she had about 30 years ago when she was working in one of Kampala's main hospitals as a nurse.
The medical personnel brought in a beautiful 14-year old girl who had had an abortion and developed Septicemia. The girl had pushed an object in her private parts, in an attempt to abort and ended up getting rotten.
"Those were the days when medical personnel in public hospitals were keen to work but she died," she says, "Her name and face stuck in my mind."
Years later during one of the Mothers Union meetings, the mother of the deceased girl stood up and talked about open communication with their daughters on sexuality issues. The mother confirmed to Kityo that the beautiful young girl she saw at the hospital years ago was actually her only daughter.
"That is when God spoke to me and said, please do something."
Kityo named the centre 'Wakisa'-- her maiden name-- which means "God is merciful."
Kityo says the ministry was started as a vehicle for God's love, compassion and mercy toward vulnerable young girls.
"This centre shows mercy to the girls who fear to talk to anybody because they are pregnant; and those who are rejected or dejected because they are pregnant."
"Instead of killing the baby and eventually killing themselves, we open doors to these girls so that they can come and speak to us; relieve their fears and get protected."
"We don't want to judge the girls by saying you asked for it and therefore get out," she says, "We say, you did not do the right thing, but you can stay here as long as you are pregnant."
Over the last 10 years, Wakisa has taken care of 1000 girls and many of them have come from all corners of Uganda but also from outside the country, including South Sudan, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kityo says her dream is for Wakisa to get a modern birthing centre for the girls. Although Mulago is Wakisa's hospital of choice because it is cheaper compared to Mengo which is within walking distance from the centre, the referral hospital is very congested.
"Many times, when we go to check on the girls who are about to deliver, you will find them under the bed or in corridors because the beds are normally reserved for older women." "My dream is to construct a birthing and maternity centre which will not only benefit the girls at Wakisa but also girls from elsewhere." No doubt, girls are getting babies and it will take us time to stop that but while it is happening; they need to have a decent labour suite, she says.
Kityo says the idea is to have a wing for private people who can come into the birthing centre to give birth at a fee so that the fees compensate for the free services to the youth. She expects the centre to be fully staffed with doctors and gynaecologists who will come in to help the pregnant girls. A piece of land has already been secured and the centre now needs about Shs400 million (Approx.US$100,000) to build it.
Kityo also wants Wakisa Ministries to get a UNEB examination centre to enable some of the girls to sit for their final examinations in an environment which is stress free.
Some of the girls come to Wakisa when they are about to sit for their national examinations but because of stigma from their peers, they are forced to drop out.
She wants the Ministry of Education, Sports, Science and Technology to let the centre become an examination centre where many other pregnant girls would come and sit the examinations.
"This centre would help the girls sit for their Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) and Uganda Certificate of Examinations (UCE), Kityo says.
"They don't have to drop out when they are about to sit for their final examinations. Let them come and sit for the examinations with a peace of mind."
Wakisa trains the girls in vocational skills (cookery, candle making, handicraft, urban agriculture, knitting, tailoring and health care--infant care and breast feeding). It is run on money from friends in and outside Uganda.
Kityo is particularly grateful to a couple in the USA and an Australia-based charity called World Share who helped the ministries to buy the premises where Wakisa is based and provided funds for the vocational skills training component.
Kityo says Wakisa also raises money or finds sponsors to help girls who show they are capable of going back into formal education. When we visited, she said three such girls were in their last year at university. One has come through university and there is one who has done a diploma in nursing and she is already working at Mulago Hospital. "This is testament that God is using the ministry to bring those girls who had earlier been lost without hope and now they are with lots of hope and they are better people."
Kityo thinks the government could do something by first acknowledging the teenage pregnancy has hit crisis level. She says the cases reported at Wakisa are just a drop in the ocean.
"These are only 27 girls here but how many are out there in the villages because they have been abused by a man?
"And who is there to rescue them?
"The parents have thrown them out of the home and they are staying with the grandma who is poorer than the parents."
Kityo wants the government to come out boldly and create forums where the issue of teenage pregnancy is regularly discussed. She says the young generation is Uganda's biggest population and it is important that the government works hand in hand with the religious institutions to save the young people from dying. She also has a message for the United Nations.
"If we have a day to observe people with HIV/ Aids, another to observe the youth who don't have problems, why don't we have a day designated to observe teenage pregnancy?
"How can the world help the baby girl who has just been born to ensure that she won't get taken advantage of by the men at a tender age like her mother?"
By Musoke Ronald