After many years of working in what I’ve come to call ‘the orphan industry’, one gets a gut feeling about requests for help. As anyone reading the comments on an article I wrote in 2012 will have noticed, I responded very clearly about two of the requests received—one from an ‘orphanage’ in Kenya, the other regarding a person raising money for ‘orphans’ in Syria.

The Kenya request was quite easy to research, while the Syria one took many copious hours and back-and-forth chatting by Messenger with the owner of the Facebook page. The hours and pages of chat did nothing to alleviate my concern. Rather, it put it into ‘high alert’ mode.

We need help

little boy on floorAbout six weeks ago, I received an email from Mathuren Ndi, from an organization in Cameroon called Saint Arnille Marie Handicap Center. It was titled very simply: “We need help.”

Even before reading it, something told me that this was the real thing. In her email, she gave me all the information about her NGO, including the registration number, street address and contact information, and continued:

Good day Mrs. Jane. Am writing to you because I believe you can help us out. Am not writing because of financial assistance only, but we equally need help. Anything you wish to find out I can provide to you. We are in Cameroon. I am sorry to disturb you but it’s because I think it’s important. I am a state Registered Nurse and my Aunt runs a handicap orphanage in Douala, Cameroon. Please I want to beg for aid and assistance because we hardly receive assistant. We struggle to help out the children and even their education. They are 40 in number as of now. Abled and disabled orphans. I have their photos too if you wish to see them. Please do we need support even not financially. Please I really wish you get to consider helping us out.

Right now we are struggling but for the school fees of the Children. Among 40 of them 27 are in school and 2 going to the University. School starts in September and we are still struggling. Sometimes we beg people to help even a little then we add to what we have to pay their fees. I contacted you because we really need help. And I believe you can help us. I really hope you do understand.

children in their bedroomAnd I felt her heart and understood, because I’d been in her exact same position in Cambodia.

I know how hard it is to find the money to care for daily needs. People are keen to donate to put up edifices to their humanitarian efforts—a house, a room or a schoolroom with a brass plaque is a neat thing to show off. It’s also absolute proof of where the donated money was spent.

Food, clothing, school fees, etc.? Difficult to prove where the money was spent, especially in so-called Third World countries where things are done in cash, in markets, or anywhere you can get these items cheaply—but they’re the most needed of all.

Using volunteer buddies to research

little girl with foodBut, I also needed to make sure that my gut wasn’t simply growling for food at that moment. I remembered Francois Forestier,  a young man I’d volunteered with in Vietnam. He’d subsequently gone to Cameroon and spent two years there.

I contacted him, told him the story and asked him if he knew anyone who could go and check out this place and see if it was genuine. He contacted one of his friends who works at a nearby NGO and sent him off with a list of instructions.

The youngster did well. He took photos with his phone (thus the quality, but he did well), spoke to the people, asked some pertinent questions and came back with the response that, yes, it was genuine, and yes, they definitely needed help. He also sent photos of the NGO where he worked to prove his own credentials.

man preparing foodI decided the best way to get the message of help needed across to readers was to do an interview with Mathuren, the manager of the handicap centre. I questioned and questioned, asked for documentation, and questioned again and again. She always responded, never lost her cool and gave me everything she had.

I appreciated her openness and her kindness, and having the information available showed me the professional way this organization is being run, with some severe restraints.

And then we talked

The first question I have to ask, Mathuren, is how did you find us?

There was a website I was browsing through. Saw comments and saw how you investigated some orphanages and discovered they were scams. I believed in you. So I wrote to you and I knew even if you wanted to investigate us, it wouldn’t be a problem. I believed you could help so that was why I contacted you.

How long have you been caring for disabled children?

We’ve been caring for these children for 13 years and some months now.

What made you start?

disabled little girlWell, it all started when my aunt’s daughter had a kidney problem and needed a transplant. We couldn’t afford it. People contributed to help us with the transplant. After her daughter’s life was saved, my aunt took it upon herself to help orphans, and that was how the centre was created. It’s been going for almost 14 years now. I’m a State Registered Nurse here in Cameroon and I do my best to see into the health situation of the children.

We have a case of a malnourished and crippled  4-year-old female who was abandoned on blocks in front of a hospital here when she was two. My aunt took the initiative of taking her in. Presently, we have a newborn male of four months whose mother died upon delivery, and the father or relatives are unknown.

Where did you get the money to start?

My aunt took a loan from the bank, which she’s paying off gradually, and started up the program. The loan was 5,000,000 CFA (US$9,000) and we were supposed to be paying 500,000 CFA (US$900) each month. However, we haven’t paid for a while now, so that’s gone up to 8,000,000 CFA (US$14,500) with interest.

What’s the name of your NGO, and how long have you been registered?

The name of the registered NGO is Amity Social Association (ASA) and St. Arnille-Marie Handicap Center is the centre for the handicapped people. It’s situated at Bonendale, Fermencam entrance, after the Nestle company in Bonendale-Bonaberi, Douala. The registration number is 103/RDDA/C19/BAPP.

It has been a registered NGO for almost 13 years now.young girl sitting on floorYou now have 40 people you take care of. Where does the money come from?

Sometimes we receive help from Christian groups. Sometimes, my uncle helps from the little pension he gets, and my aunt helps too, with our own little contribution.

There are children. Do they go to school? Where, and how do they get there?

Yes, they do go to school, not too far from the house, and they go on foot because the organization doesn’t have a bus.

Does it cost anything to school these children?

Yes, it does cost quite a lot for their books, school uniforms and school fees. Our costs per year are:

 School fees 2,359,000 CFA (US$4,250)
Uniforms 135,000 CFA (US$243)
Exercise books354,000 CFA (US$637)
Textbooks516,000 CFA (US$929)
Shoes120,000 CFA (US$216)
Sportswear108,000 CFA (US$195)

abandoned newborn babyAre the children orphaned, or have they simply been abandoned? Where do they come from?

Some are abandoned children, some are orphans. For example, with the newborn baby we have, the Mum died giving birth to him.

Do you own the building where your NGO is, or do you rent it? Where does the money come from?

The building is actually ours. Then, a little expansion was done through a group of women who assisted us, so we now have enough rooms and beds for the children.

You’re a registered nurse. What about your job, do you still work as a nurse?

I’m still a registered nurse. Many clinics can’t pay what they said they would, so I’m still working voluntarily while gathering more experience, and I get transport fare at the end of the month.

caregiver in children's bedroomHow many caregivers do you have and what are their qualifications?

We have about nine, and including my uncle and aunt, there are 11. I’m a registered nurse, while my aunt and uncle are retired. There’s my niece, who’s a degree holder; my cousin, who holds a degree in banking and finance; and other relatives who assist.

How much does it cost to take care of everyone on a monthly basis—can you give me a breakdown in CFA?

  • Staff 850,000/month (US$1500)
  • Housing (loan repayments) 500,000/month (US$900)
  • Food 500-600,000/month (US$900 to $1,000)
  • Taxes 150,000/month (US$270)
  • Water 30-50,000/month (US$55 to $90)
  • Electricity 23-25,000/month (US$40 to $45)
  • Clothing 40-70,000/month (US$70 to $125)
  • Medical expenses 200-350,000/month (US$360 to $630)
  • Transport 50-100,000/month (US$90 to $180)

Total per month: 993,000 to 2,343,000 CFA (US$1,790 to $4,200). (This equates to US$45 to $105 per person, per month!)On average, each month, it costs us around 1,450,000 CFA (US$2,600 or $65 per person), including bills—without paying staff or repaying the loan. There are some months, though, in which it can cost us as little as 700,000 CFA (US$1,250).

If we were to pay our staff and repay the loan, the minimum cost per month would be around 2,300,000 CFA (plus or minus US$4,000). So, for now, there’s no compensation for staff and we can’t repay the loan.

You told me you need help. What kind of help do you need?

We’ll accept donations of any sort. We’re also trying to integrate with other orphanages so that we can be part of a community and help each other.

We need sponsors who can help financially, even to help cover the education of the children. We’ll accept donations of any sort. We’re also trying to integrate with other orphanages so that we can be part of a community and help each other.

Do you keep financial statements that anyone can look at if they ask?

Yes, we do keep financial records of what’s being done every month and how it goes.  I understand your point on the notion people have. You’re very correct. We have all the records of everything that goes in and out, and we’ll send it to anyone who asks.

If people want to donate money, how do they do that?

We have a bank account for the orphanage/centre. The bank details are:

Account name: Saint Arnille Marie Handicap Center
Bank Name: Banque Internationale du Cameroon Pour L’Epargne et le Credit (BICEC S.A.)
Bank Code: 10001
Branch Code: 06810
Account Number: 66104610001
Key: 46
Swift (B.I.C.) code: ICLRCMCXXX
IBAN: CM211000106810 66104610001 46

How can we help?

young disabled boy with a big smileThis centre needs help. It needs it now. Every little bit helps. I know how grateful I was for each little donation, as all the little bits made a big whole. And I also know how wonderful people are. I’d send out calls for help at various times when our NGO needed assistance, and I received overwhelming responses:

Every little bit helps. I know how grateful I was for each little donation, as all the little bits made a big whole.

  • A Hong Kong football team sponsored the beds and mattresses.
  • A young Hollywood scriptwriter started an NGO especially to help us, and collected money for school uniforms and books. This organization now helps many people around the world.
  • One of our directors had a friend put a collection box in his restaurant, and when it was full, he transferred the money.
  • A photographer came to visit and fell in love with the children. He ended up sending photos around the world.

Little things snowballed, and it was a wonderful thing to feel. Whenever I needed things—mosquito nets, clothes, books, dentist visits, transportation—I would send out a help call, and there was always a response … always.

Although I was born in Canada, I grew up in Africa. It’s in my blood. I’m trying to figure out ways to help collect money for this organization. If anyone can help, and wants more information or can give me advice on how to do this—I’m also thinking of crowdfunding to assist the small donors—please contact me at Also, if anyone wants to see the documentation for the organization, I’ll send it to you.

There are times of need in countries in which it takes very little to make a huge difference to both the needy and the giver. This is one of them.

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images by Scott Douala