Tuesday, October 24, 2006

An African Perspective and Then My Opinion

The New Times (Kigali)

October 22, 2006
Mwiti Marete

A new war is being waged in Africa, regarding adoptions of African children by Western celebrities. Just last week, American pop diva Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone and her film-maker husband Guy Ritchie were granted an interim adoption of a 13-month-old Malawian
baby, David Banda, for 18 months by a Malawian court.

The Madonna issue has however helped illuminate the adoptions of Third World children by Western celebrities, especially the Hollywood 'crowd', which has been going on 'silently' for decades. Actress Mia Farrow, now the mother of 14, began adopting mainly
severely mentally and physically handicapped children from poor countries in 1973. A few years ago top-flight actress Angelina Jolie adopted her son, Maddox, from Cambodia, and her daughter Zahara from Ethiopia. Earlier this year, actor Ewan McGregor adopted a Mongolian
child with his wife, while film star Meg Ryan also got her own from China.

Instructively, unlike against colonialism or the Slave Trade that involved force, this 'war' is complicated by a mutual agreement between two parties deciding the fate of an ignorant third party whose destiny will be determined by it. I call it a war because we Africans seem to have been ambushed; no one prepared us for this. A previously unknown phenomenon is now the vogue, and more and more gullible parents, guardians and relatives are getting hooked.

It is true that the continent faces an acute problem of Aids orphans. Already there are more than 43 million orphans on the world's poorest continent, and by 2010, by UN estimates, 18 million
African children will have lost a parent to Aids. Aids has affected many of the people who might have traditionally provided support - like the extended families - forcing many of these children to either end up in orphanages or on the streets. We can't feed them all. But then, while some see the adoptions as a good thing that would ease the plight of our Aids orphans, I agree with those who fear it could trigger disaster.

"Madonna might have good intentions but we must follow the law to the letter to avoid a situation where criminals with money might take advantage to abuse our children," reportedly said Maxwell Matewere, Executive Director of child rights group Eye of the Child. The Human Rights Consultative Committee of 67 Malawian organisations threatened to go to court seeking an injunction to halt the adoption process.

True, it could open doors to anyone from anywhere to come grab any black child and take it to the West and do whatever they like with it, without consequences. I also fear that we may end up with 'quasi- Africans', brought up in a totally different environment, coming back to their 'alien' home only to feel out of place among their own people.

Again, non-Africans may not fully appreciate the African family set- up. They may not realise that many a relative of the adopted child may be spending sleepless nights worrying about their child -despite all the assurances that the latter is "safe". An African child can only be safe at the ancestral home - surrounded by kin and kith.

Although it is said the boy's father, Yohane Banda, a 32-year-old farmer, is said to have agreed to the adoption, saying, "What I want is a good life for my child," you see the kind of customers we're dealing with when he proudly says: "I am the father of David, who has been adopted. I am very, very happy because as you can see there is poverty in this village and I know he will be very well looked after in America." As someone rightly pointed out, little does the man know that Madonna moved to Britain more than five years ago and that's where David is now!

Ignorance and worries aside, a big debate has arisen: whether it's in an African child's best interest to be spirited away to the wealthy West. Who is winning here? "Are celebrities doing it for the right reasons and not to make a statement?" media reports quote Pam Wilson of the Johannesburg Child Welfare Society as having asked.

Yet others are concerned about the child's cultural and individual identities. "International adoptions are not a solution. The answer is supporting the community," Bill Philbrick, manager of the Atlanta, Georgia-based Hope for the African Children Initiative (HACI), a pan-African effort established in 2000 as a partnership between organizations such as CARE, Save the Children UK and World Vision, reportedly said.

In an open letter to "Madam Madonna", Eye of the Child, a child rights group in Malawi, urged Madonna to help fund existing programs in Malawi to help vulnerable children. The group also applauded efforts by her charity, Raising Malawi, which aims to set up an orphan care centre.

I totally agree with them. Why is it that there are individuals who have not hidden behind their celebrity status and have been downright genuine with their philanthropy - even without having to adopt African children 'for the cameras'? David Hewson "Bono", Bill Gates, former American President Bill Clinton, Prof Jeffery Sachs and Bob Geldof have all been here and done a lot, but they left the children intact.

These are people with ability; why then haven't they joined the adoption bandwagon? Don't they have grand homes where adopted African children can grow up? What's the sense in giving one child in a million an extremely good life as the rest wallow in poverty?

Again, the issue of identity must be taken very seriously. Having grown up in an African village, I was taught the true African values which I doubt I would have got had I grown up elsewhere and then 'transplanted' back home. Although Mr Banda claims that Madame Madonna has promised to take David "to know his roots" when he grows older, I wonder whether he'll have sufficient time to master the roots as well as he should.

Again, from the West do all sorts of tales bizarre to the African originate - racism, drug abuse, same-sex marriages, sex slavery, guns, devil worship ... name them. And, like many black Africans, I don't want David Banda to come back a foreigner. I don't want returnee David to ever think of taking his then senile father to a nursing home, because that's what he'll have been taught to do: I want him to care for him at home.

Much as I wish he gets the best in life, I want David to grow up in Africa - with the necessary help from genuine philanthropists and not fame hunters. On our part as Africans, let us plan our families to ensure we bear the number of children that we can comfortably care for. That way we shall not need to have our children grow up in 'exile'.

I find this opinion somewhat disturbing. Not because it is questioning the motives of celebrity but because it makes the generalization about African children who are raised in the west. I have worked hard to make friends with people from Africa. I have a good friend who is Nigerian and through her have met some wonderful Ethiopian people. It is our goal to make sure that our Ethiopian Children know their country and understand the cultural differences between their birth country and America. On both sides of this debate, as with any debate, we think our way is better. We are all a litte ethnocentric and think that our values and beliefs are better than those of someone/some place else. I think all of us can and will admit that a child is almost always better off with their birthparents. I say always because there are parents who neglect and abuse their children. I also think that we will all also agree that every child deserves to have a family that loves and takes care of them. I don't mean takes care of them in the sense that they own a mansion and yacht, but a family that can meet thier most basic needs.

I did not adopt my son because I wanted to save him. I adopted my son because I wanted a family. We cannot have our own children and we know it is our destiny to have a family. So. we two loving parents (not that the number or gender matter) wanted a child (needed a child to be complete) and our son needed and wanted a family. I don't see and/or understand what the author of the above piece sees wrong with that.

1 comment:

Jenni said...

This is tough one that's probably going to be around for the duration of our lives and our childrens' lives.

Personally, we didn't chose Ethiopia because we wanted to "save" a child. Quite frankly, when we began the process, our child could have been green and from the North Pole for all we cared. Because of our age, the length of our marriage, our work schedules, our timeframe, and the costs, Ethiopia sort of chose us.

And I know that I'm not alone in that sort of decision-making process that adoptive parents of today go through.

That said, I understand why the author feels this way. Even though I know there are a lot of adoptive parents who don't have a salvationist approach to adoption, there are a lot who do. It may not be a direct "I'm saving a child from a dreadfully impoverished and horribly diseased life," but it's there. I've run into parents who have expressed a desire to "return to Ethiopia with their church for a mission" and parents who are adopting from Ethiopia "because it's their God-appointed mission." There are definitely parents out there who are "working to save a child from the impoverished, heathen nations of Africa."

I'm making a rash assumption, but I think the author's feelings are valid because of history's timeline. We're not even 200 years away from the widespread existence of slavery in the U.S., and western colonialism in Africa was rampant, even in recent history. And now that we've moved beyond enslaving their people and staking claim on their land, we're swooping in and taking their children. We, meaning both westerners and Africans haven't given enough thought, effort, and space to heal our history of conflict. And this particular piece by this particular author is probably only a tiny fragment, bravely vocalized, of the unhealed relationship between the west and the many countries of Africa.

We, as adoptive parents, can only work to more clearly identify our good intentions. I haven't done the research, but I would assume that there were similar reactions many years ago when Korean and Chinese adoptions seemed to be in vogue. And the regular occurence of those adoptions seems to have merged right into that which is now widely acceptable. Perhaps by frequently and publicly sharing our own motivations for adopting from an African country, we can show people like this author that we're not all folks of the salvationist creed, and that most of us are just parents who are looking to complete their family with a child who needs them.