Sunday, 7 January 2007

Africa: Responsible Parenting

My good friend Mary tells me the story of how she once went into a posh hotel in Bamako and saw five or six white women sitting in a line, each with a cute black baby on her knee, ‘for all the world as if they’d just been on a shopping spree and were showing off their purchases.’

Adoption of African babies by white families in the West is an ongoing practice and may be done from the best of intentions. Yet Mary, who has been in Mali for twenty years and has her own Malian family, explains how the practice of African-Western adoption highlights fundamental cross-cultural misunderstandings.

It is, in fact, common for African parents to let family or friends look after one of their children, give them a good education or a better start in life. But this is quite different from giving up their child for good: the child is always part of their natural family and will always return to take up their adult role there.

‘However carefully the process is explained to an African family, they simply don’t grasp the concept of adoption as we understand it in the West, because for them, the idea of giving up a child for good is simply inconceivable. So, when African parents enter into such an adoption agreement, they do not realise the full consequences of what they are doing.’

In addition, there is plenty of evidence from personal testimony that, however loving white adoptive parents may be, black children taken out of their natural environment – no matter how disadvantaged - will grow up to resent this and even say: ‘I wish it had never happened.’
You can take the child out of Africa, but you can’t take Africa out of the child.

Although some of this evidence is now contested there has been, in the UK, since the early 1980s, serious opposition to ‘transracial adoption’ - which makes it extremely difficult for a white British family to adopt a black child who has been born to parents in the UK. But, somehow, this restriction doesn’t apply to adoptions from overseas.

Adopt a country

We’ve had the sponsor a child concept - which means providing extra support for a child in their own environment. That’s been criticised for setting the child apart, creating inequality in the community. There followed the ‘sponsor a community’ concept, but this attracts the same criticisms. You can’t solve Africa’s problems by focussing on individual needs, without addressing the system in which these needs arise, as Malawian child rights activists have tried to point out to Madonna.

Good intentions are simply not enough. There’s inevitably a power and wealth differential in these arrangements which has to be recognised. So when I read that Angela Merkel is proposing that each of the G8 countries adopt an African country as part of her G8 presidency platform, my blood runs cold. Although this won’t mean taking children out of Africa, there are a number of possible consequences worth considering.

My first reaction is that this is a 21st century return to the original carve-up of the African continent between colonial powers, the impact of which is still being suffered by individual African countries. This seems to smack of the same kind of paternalism: ‘we can do things better, we know what you need.’ Haven’t we learned anything?

But there’s always more than one perspective. When I mention the idea to the president of one of the leading African women’s organisations, she’s surprisingly enthusiastic. ‘What a great idea! Just think, if Germany was really concentrating on Mali, all our problems would be sorted within 12 months!’

Maybe it’s something to do with who is going to do the parenting. Because, in fact, though Germany’s contribution to development aid is rather thrifty, it’s always money wisely spent, her technical assistance is widely recognised as excellent and, in Mali, very much appreciated.

Despite this, German representatives here privately admit to grave doubts about the longer-term sustainability of their projects, given the lack of real commitment of central government to the decentralisation process and the related lack of effective social mobilisation at the grassroots.

One of the reasons Mali may welcome greater involvement from Germany is their strongly felt need to escape from the psychological influence of ageing France – whose continuing stranglehold on the education system in francophone West Africa deliberately, according to education workers, impedes the development of locally appropriate skills and attitudes for both young men and women.

What kind of partnership?

Are African countries now going to have the choice over who will adopt them? Will there be a squabble in the nursery? ‘No, I want Germany to be our new dad!’ or ‘Yes, we want China to be our new mum!’

For each G8 country is going to do parenting differently. Does this mean we will see new paradigms of development, and, for example, competition between the latest German and Japanese models?

I’m not seriously worried about the proposal, because I don’t believe the G8 countries will buy into it. Whatever their relative levels of altruism as regards development aid, they all want to have a footprint in every African country, for reasons of future political influence and their own economic benefit.

But I want to run with the metaphor because it can be both entertaining and informative. What’s going to happen if Germany is doing a good parenting job with characteristic Zuverläßigkeit and China comes along, like a flamboyant rich auntie, saying: ‘That’s OK, bruv, take the weekend off, I’ll give her a treat.’ Then proceeds to subvert little Mali with a diet of takeaway pizza, coca cola and adult-rated movies?

China is willing to adopt any of the children. You can already see the marks of her high-heels across Africa, from Algeria to Angola, most recently in Accra (Ghana). She now rivals the US in trade relations. But Africans are beginning to ask: ‘what does our Chinese friend really want? She’s not applying any political conditions to economic engagement. Is she a new partner or just a neo-colonial?’ (Afrique Magazine No. 254 November 2006)

In contrast, the German proposal specifies that only certain countries are going to be adopted. Like those respectable white ladies in the Hotel Salaam, G8 is mainly interested in cute well-behaved babies. After all, who but China would want to invest in rebellious, abused, conflicted children like the Sudan or D R Congo, when you can’t trust them to play nicely at parties?

Rwanda has successfully managed to grow out of her bad-girl image. (Far be it from me to suggest this success is due to the fact that, after the 1994 genocide, the majority of the population were women.) The country’s also thrown off the influence of France, whose neglect in the 1990s had such unimaginable consequences. Now Rwanda has her own vision for her future, she is able to stand up to France and say: ‘We are equals.’

Her government’s had a lot of help through much-needed budget support from the UK. But people from both East and West Africa have also raised issues with me about commercially motivated UK support for Rwanda playing dirty games across the fence with neighbouring DR Congo…

Readers may argue that I’m being unfair. Merkel’s proposal is about G8 countries ‘picking a partnership’. She is suggesting a summit with (male) African leaders to discuss the proposal. In fact, as other reports highlight, this is not about giving more money in development aid, but (what a surprise) developing private sector investment. So, without checking the small print or talking to their (female) partners in country, are African governments going to sign up yet again to an agreement of which the consequences may be unexpectedly negative?

Good parenting

I am very lucky that I was brought up where I belonged, in Yorkshire, by my natural parents, both poor but proud working class socialists. This tough love upbringing consisted of the Brian Daniel Methodist-based morality (‘Well, you should have been sorry before you did it’) and Victorian work ethic (‘If anything’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right’) combined with the Mildred Baxter school of counselling (‘It’s time you pulled your socks up, love’).

This resulted in me working hard, taking responsibility for my own actions, never being a victim or wearing wrinkled stockings. I grew up with self-respect, because I was always treated as an intelligent equal.

Good parenting also works by example. Despite their humble origins, my parents were both loved and respected members of society. They didn’t lie, cheat or steal; never countenanced violence; they gave their services to the community for free after work in the evenings (because that’s what you do) and didn’t feel the need to advertise their achievements.

It’s not enough to have good intentions - you also need to live out your principles.

Adoption procedures in the UK continue to be stringent, and rightly so, because parenting is a big responsibility, not everyone can hack it. So, all you G8 countries, please line up behind Germany: I’d like to inspect your credentials. Africa is still experiencing growing pains because of colonialism - and which one among you, in the meantime, has become a fit parent?

December 2006

1 comment:

Anita and Family said...


While I realize that this blog entry wasn't entirely about international adoption, I feel like I must comment on the gross generalizations you made.

International adoption is not easy. It's not cute. It's not convenient. And adopting from Africa, in particular, is riddled with pitfalls. But families still adopt from Africa.

Why? First, because they hope to grow their family. Secondly, because there is the greatest need in Africa. Prospective adoptive families aren't in the African bush hunting down families to rip apart! There are MILLIONS of children sitting in orphanages in African countries that are dieing every day from lack of food and medical care. These aren't children that have parents or other family members who are able to care for them. If they had that, they wouldn't be in an orphanage. They are alone, in an institution and definitely less than optimal setting. Are you seriously saying that it's better for these children to languish in orphanages that undergo the "horrors" of being adopted into a white family? Seriously?

I don't think that any white family would tell you that international adoption (and particularly trans-racial adoption) is the BEST solution for any child. The best solution is for that child to stay with their birth family. But that is not always possible. I would venture a guess that most adoptive families find ways to contribute to their child's birth country so that more families can stay together--but that doesn't change the fact that millions of children are already in the orphanages.

And I highly disagree with the picture you painted of white adoptive moms showcasing their newly adopted black "babies" like they just got the latest style from a shop! On the contrary, families adopting from Africa adopt all ages. They adopt children with a variety of special needs--from missing limbs to HIV+ children, to children who have undergone severe malnourishment in their lifetime.

My family is in the process of trying to adopt a 15 month old boy from Ghana. When he was brought into care he was close to death from malnutrition. He may have longterm congitive and physical effects from the malnutrition. In November (the last time I got an update on him) he was at a 3-4 month level developmentally. Don't tell me that white families only want "perfect, cute" black babies from Africa!

If you really want to know what it's like to adopt from Africa, please feel free to read my blog. It definitely hasn't been easy and we have a long way yet to go.