Garden of the Lost and Abandoned: The Extraordinary Story of One Ordinary Woman and the Children She Saves

Release Date: 
November 6, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by: 

She is a self-taught journalist, a natural detective, a Good Samaritan, and a woman with a mission. Her name is Gladys Kalibbala but the kids she saves call her Mommy or Auntie Gladys. Others have called her “a Ugandan ‘orphan sleuth.’”

A tireless child advocate, Gladys writes a newspaper column called “Lost and Abandoned,” in which she briefly profiles kids who have lost track of their families. The hope is that a family member or relative will read the column and recognize a child who has gone missing or been separated from familiar adults. Sometimes reunions are the result. But often they are not, and that’s when Gladys becomes deeply engaged in helping lost children who come her way.

In Uganda millions of children lack parental support. Many are abused physically, emotionally, and sexually. In the capital city of Kampala alone, thousands of such children, ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers, roam the streets seeking scraps to eat and a safe place to sleep. Some of the lucky ones find their way to Gladys, who with her limited funds and time tries desperately to save them. 

Academy-award winning filmmaker Jessica Yu met Gladys when she was researching a documentary in Uganda. Compelled to write a book about Gladys’s vital voluntary work, she followed her on and off for four years, capturing in real time many of the dramatic rescues, and occasional failures, of the woman police or social service agencies call when they have another stray child in custody. Sometimes Gladys finds the kids herself or people who know her send her pleas for help. She never says no.

In her well-paced if perhaps a bit too long book, Yu shares stories of children like autistic Trevor, disfigured Ezra, teen mother Zam, orphaned AIDS siblings Alex, Annet, and Mercy and many more. 

Several chapters follow “the boy with seven names” as he finds his way back to his parents. Others share Gladys’s trials as she attempts to establish a working, warm family farm where children can live together safely under her loving guidance.

We meet the people who support her and those who challenge her. We watch her astutely assess people and situations, including a possible fraudulent adoption operation, and we witness her fortitude, negotiating skills, and indefatigable commitment to her much-loved wards.                                                                    

“Gladys was out there, boots on the ground, helping those kids,” Yu recalls. “She was trying to find them a roof, a school, a meal, a doctor, whatever need was most pressing. More astonishing was the fact that she was doing it on her own. She didn’t have money, she didn’t have transportation, she didn’t have an NGO funding her work. But here she was, taking on the children of strangers, literally hundreds of them over the years. And most astonishing of all, she was cheerful!”

That cheer is evident whenever Gladys squeals with delight at an achievement. “We’ve found our boy!” she shouts with joy. “That is life,” she says when facing obstacles.

Her stubbornness is also on display when she is challenged. “When I am chasing something, I don’t care where it is or what it takes. I must have it,” she tells an adversary. “Someone will be telling me, ‘There is this woman, she is suffering, but she is in a very remote area. There is no transport, there is no way you can reach there.’ I tell them, ‘Just give me the name. I will reach there.’”

As Jessica Yu puts it, “Gladys is human. On the one hand she’s larger than life, with her unstoppable drive and her room-filling laughter. On the other hand, she’s an ordinary person. . . . She’s tough, but she is also extremely tender-hearted. She can be street smart, and . . . she has a temper. She succeeds or she fails, but she doesn’t give up.”

“What Gladys does is hard, and often the results are inconclusive,” Yu says. “But seeing the cumulative impact of her . . . acts of kindness, and the joy she takes in them, reminds us that we discover our humanity when we engage.”

Adds Gladys, “It’s like people think that only saints can help others. Anyone can do it!” Anyone like Gladys, that is. The kids who love her are more than happy to agree.