Uganda has passed a series of laws and signed international treaties designed to protect the disabled, including becoming one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But these public declarations chalk up to almost nothing in the lives of the parents fighting to keep their children alive, the children who know only being locked away, and the workers committed to helping them. While there has been some progress in access to education and healthcare, many disabled people continue to live on the abyss, with report after report drawing the same conclusions. The rights and needs of disabled people are "often ignored", said one by the union representing disability groups. They are particularly at risk of "multiple forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation", said another, by the United Nations Children's Fund. A 2016 United Nations report, produced almost a decade after Uganda signed the disability convention, described in one sentence the positive measures the government had taken to promote the rights of disabled people, then detailed in 14 pages more than 50 concerns.
It is a cycle that the staff at Embrace Kulture are all too familiar with. The histories of the children at their centre are among some of the most harrowing: a girl with Down's syndrome who suffered horrific sexual abuse; a boy whose ankles are scarred from years of being shackled with chains; a boy with autism who spent his days tethered to a tree. One report detailed the case of a disabled child who was locked in a cage. Embrace Kulture's mission is deceptively simple: "No more hidden children." It works to restore the basic human rights of children extricated from hiding, and to give them a chance at becoming independent adults. The children go to school, receive therapeutic support, and are given vocational training in areas like business, bakery and agriculture.
Students at the Aamanyi Centre, which is run by the NGO Embrace Kulture, prepare a plot for planting during their agriculture class
The students are grouped into two classes: Giraffes and Lions. In the Lions Room, Noeline Namata, a classroom aide, teaches the younger children about money. She holds up a banknote at the front of the class. "This is 2,000?" She stops. "This is 2,000," repeats Namata, emphasising the question. "Shillings," the children chorus back to her. "Next is what?" asks Namata. "From 2,000 we go to? From 2,000 we go to?"
"5,000," shouts a boy huddled near the front. "Yes, which colour is it?" Namata points to the coloured A4 sheets of paper stuck to the wall above the whiteboard. "Green!" the children shout back. "Green, yes! From 5,000 we go to?"
One boy has been running in and out of the classroom, breathing heavily and strumming some wire clasped between his teeth with his hand. He is restless but eventually takes his seat against the back wall between two students, his hands linked behind his head, forearms pressed against his ears, rocking back and forth.
"From 5,000 we go to?" Namata continues. "10,000!" the children shout. "Yes! This is 10,000. This is 10,000." The students work their way up to 50,000 shillings, then Namata goes around the room. "If I give you money, what can you buy?" The children take turns answering - chapati bread, chicken, apple, a dress, biscuit, onion, eggs - before each receives a riotous round of applause.
Ketty Akello fronts her class during a maths lesson at the Aamanyi Centre
Ketty is in this class. She is a beaming teenager who loves to dance. Her mother, Rose Akello, was kicked out of the house by her husband after she refused his demand to dump Ketty in the latrine. "He denied her completely. He refused her," explains Akello. "He always said to me, 'I don't want that child in the home'. My husband chased me from home and doesn't want me with the child. The community rejected me, they sent me away. They said they have never seen that type of child. Even my own parents refused me. I didn't have anywhere to go."
Akello says she moved from place to place with Ketty, who has Down's syndrome, but always encountered the same problem. She pleaded for help, begged for mercy. Sometimes she tried to hide her daughter from the sneers and the scowls. Nothing worked. "People were saying to me to take the child to the witch doctor, throw that child, kill that child," she says. "I became tired looking for help." Then one day a few years ago, Akello found Pastor Fred, which eventually led her to Embrace Kulture.
It is through Ketty's intervention that Embrace Kulture and Pastor Fred have been able to make inroads in the eastern district of Uganda, where Catherine was discovered tethered to a chair in the hut. During that visit, word quickly spread that an outreach team was in the area. When Pastor Fred and Kabenge's team returned to their van in the afternoon, a group of parents and children were waiting.
Rose Akello, mother of Ketty Akello, dances with joy, signaling the arrival of Pastor Fred Alimet and community health outreach workers
They sit under a buttress tree on ripped blue and grey tarps. The mothers wear hopeless expressions. Children lie across their laps, or sit quietly in front of them. The younger ones breastfeed. Patiently, the mothers take turns asking for answers. They want to know why their children cannot sit or stand or swallow. Why they are incontinent or suffer from seizures. Can these children be educated? There is a blind girl and a little boy with twisted limbs. A child with a sinister-looking growth on her back. A suspected case of hydrocephalus. Children with Down's syndrome and cerebral palsy.
A father - the only father who has travelled to be here - asks how he can feed his son, a frail seven-year-old he cradles in his arms like a newborn. The tormented man says his son's condition has deteriorated to the point where he can only eat porridge, and even that is a struggle. At one point, an exhausted-looking mother near the front hands up her child's medical records, a 96-page exercise book. The last entry from the hospital, a week earlier, says her seven-month-old suffers from a weak spinal cord and struggles to breathe. "Come back for future investigation," the handwritten doctor's note says.
Paul Oribo lives with cerebral palsy; his father, Simon Okurut has cared for Paul alone since his wife fled their village after Paul's diagnoses
Kabenge emphasises that they are not here to offer false hope, just to try, maybe, to help a little. The advice is basic but practical: how to prepare food for children with feeding difficulties; how to build supports to encourage walking; and, too often, that the child needs to be taken to the hospital.
No more than 10 minutes' walk from this spot, through wild mint and long dry grass, disability workers found another boy. Silas is locked inside a thatched-roof hut, tethered to a heavy log by rope and ripped cloth. A mosquito net with fist-sized holes hangs over a thin piece of discoloured foam on the floor. He has one toy, a ball made from tightly woven plastic bags. The door is tied shut from the outside, where the world goes on without him.
Silas's parents are still together, a rare occurrence that health workers credit for the boy's overall satisfactory health. His mother, Betty Ilolu, who had seven children before him, knew something was different when he was born. "I was asking what is this? What am I producing? Is this a human being? I thought God has given me a different thing, not a child," she recalls.
"Each time when the child was growing he was so sickly. I was only waiting for the child to die, but the child did not die. When Silas got so sick I took him to the [health] clinic and they could not help. They said to take him to the hospital. When we went there they said his heart has a hole, only one part of the heart is functioning. They told me they could not help. They gave some painkillers and said to take him back home."
In the past, 13-year-old Silus Odii has been assaulted and abused by neighbouring villagers because of his disability, so his parents Joram Odii and Betty Ilolu now tether him inside for his own safety
Silas's father, Richard Okodel, says most people in their community told them to take him to the witch doctor, but as Christians they never considered this an option. "At times Silas would get so sick some people would say to just kill him instead of being disturbed day in, day out, by a child who will not get better," Okodel says.
Asked if they had ever received any support from family, neighbours, community or the government, Ilolu slowly shakes her head. "Nobody," she says. It was only earlier this year that Ilolu and Okodel learned there was a name for their 10-year-old son's mysterious condition: Down's syndrome.
Okodel says they started tying Silas up and locking him in the hut when he finally started walking, at the age of five, because neighbours, both adults and children, beat him bloody. Silas tried school last year but the same thing happened. On his first day he was singled out by classmates and teachers. "Children would gather around him and some would beat him or scare him," his father says. "The teachers would not be patient. Sometimes they would beat him or push the child out of the class."
Pastor Fred Alimet embraces Silus Odii after untying his tether
Pastor Fred says grassroots education is crucial to combating the child disability crisis "to teach them about the rights of these children." He says, "Most people look for equality, but in Uganda it's more about survival." In this region alone, Pastor Fred says, there are at least 300 other children hidden away. "Most of these children are on ropes or chains. When I find it like this I don't like it."
The pastor asks Silas how often he is tied up. "He says a long time. He says, 'I'm always here'." He unties the tether from Silas's wrist and lets it drop to the floor. Then he smiles at the little boy and takes his hand. "I am telling him he is handsome, he is good, he is not supposed to be tied like that."
What did he say? "He says, 'Thank you'."
Silus Odii untangles the rope that is used to tether him to a crate