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 volunteered at the Kenyan orphanage from 2012 to 2014.
A federal jury found Durham guilty of a 2003 law criminalizing crimes against children abroad 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 says they now have evidence to prove it. Several of the children who testified against Durham – now young adults – came forward in 2021 to say he never abused them. Rather, they claim that they and others residents of the children’s home were coachedbeaten and forced by Kenyan orphanage staff to fabricate sexual abuse stories and give false testimony against Durham.
In 2022, Durham’s legal team filed a motion in Oklahoma’s Western District Court upholding the children’s new testimony and asking the court to overturn Durham’s conviction and reverse his sentence. Although the judge rejected Durham’s petition based on legal technicalities, his legal team has appealed to Denver’s 10th Circuit Court.
If a historian who studies evangelical missions in Africa, including missionaries’ efforts to “save” African children, I have spent much of the past five years try to understand this matter. However you look at it, both the initial allegations against Durham and the new claims of abuse and false testimony are tragic.
While Durham waits to see how the courts will decide, I believe his story provides an opportunity to examine the system that enabled the existence of this orphanage, Durham’s visits to it, and the conflicting claims made about him.
2 centuries of ‘white saviors’
The Western obsession with African orphans began in the 1830s, when British and European missionary organizations began working in East Africa – the same region where Durham would volunteer nearly 200 years later.
The Biblical call “to visit orphans and widows in their misery” prompted these early humanitarian workers focus on working with children who had been abducted, orphaned, or otherwise made vulnerable by the raiding and warfare that the Slave trade in the Indian Ocean. Many of these children ended up in mission-run orphanages or residential schools, supported by Western donors and sometimes their governments.
Critics of these interventions, such as the Victorian novelist Charles Dickensclaimed that the missionaries’ focus on recruiting converts blinded them to the welfare of the children in their care.
For example, in the 1890s, a famine caused many children to seek support in a Church Missionary Society orphanage in Freretown, near Mombasa, Kenya. When parents or relatives later tried to take the children home, the missionaries refused to release them, believing they would lose converts and, significantly, the donations that supported their work.
The ‘orphaned industrial complex’
Today, a similar fixation on profit is part of what orphanage founders, travel companies that advertiseorphan tourismand the Western donors, missionaries and travelers who support them. Experts call this the “orphaned industrial complex.”
This is a system where efforts to care for vulnerable children become entangled in the business interests of the individuals and institutions involved. Paradoxically, research shows that founders of orphanages, travel companies and mission organizations often benefit most when the goal of helping vulnerable children is not met.
One cannot “save” a being if there are no beings to be saved. So smart founders of orphanages and their sponsors often lie about the numbers and backgrounds of the children in their care.
In fact, about 80% of the 8 million children in homes around the world are not actually beings, at least not according to the generally accepted definition of a child who has lost both parents. The majority of these children have at least one living parent or extended families who, with the right support, can care for them at home. This includes orphanage residents in Kenyawhere Durham worked.
One way children end up in orphanages like Upendo is through a form of human trafficking in which recruiters take children, often under false pretenses, from their families and sell them to orphanage owners. Others are lured with promises of free education, or picked off the streets and housed without the knowledge of the government.
Researchers have found that children growing up in residential care centers are often stigmatized And experience developmental delay. There is also a large amount of evidence that children living in orphanages – especially if they have a disability – are much more at risk of violence, abuse and neglect than other children.
A study of six low-income countries, including Kenya, found that 50.3% of children in orphanages had been sexually abused.
Further, Western missionaries and volunteers are encouraged to behave towards “orphans” in a way that further increases their risk of abuse. Taking children one-on-one apart, engaging in close physical contact, and buying them presents are often cited encouragingly as ways to “loving on” orphanage residents.
From a child protection standpoint, these behaviors are also potential warning signs grooming by a sexual predator and can sedate children for 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 such as Kenya. The country where Durham went several times to volunteer for short periods is trying replacing residential children’s homes with family, foster and community care in the next decade.
Organizations such as Africa Impact and projects abroadtwo US-based companies that organize volunteer work on the continent have phased out orphanage tourism programs.
An entire system on trial
The conviction of a white missionary because child abuse is not 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 Johnsonof Coos Bay, Oregon, was sentenced to life in prison in 2019 for child sexual abuse in Cambodia.
Other such offenders including Richard Huckle And Simon Harrishave gone from the UK to orphanages in low-income countries and sexually abused the children they were supposed to help there.
There also is a filthy cast of missionary organizations And local owners of orphanages in low-income countries who commit crimes while claiming to do good.
But these new claims from Upendo survivors are unique in that they highlight the various forms of violence that children in homes are subjected to, both by missionaries and by the people who claim to protect them.
According to the legal documents and coverage I reviewed, the former orphanage residents who recanted their testimony against Durham have not said why orphanage staff told them to lie. It would be a tragedy if Durham turns out to be imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, but regardless of whether he is eventually acquitted, I think in the end the children will have suffered the most.