Words Sarah Bentley
Should non-Africans be allowed to adopt African children? This controversial question kicks off ARISE Magazine’s new thought-provoking new feature, The Big Question, in issue 13.
One of the people to contribute their views was British/Ethiopian/Eritrean poet, writer and performer Lemn Sissay. Having experienced what it’s like to be an African child adopted by non-African parents, he had a lot to say on the matter.
We were unable include his full, fascinating response in the magazine so are publishing it here.
Should non-Africans be allowed to adopt African children?
Non-Africans should be allowed to adopt – but they should be monitored. I know good people who were adopted by non-Africans. However, I also know those who committed suicide. How many of these adoptions is one suicide worth? Where are the statistics of this private and government trade in adoption?
Many non-African adopting parents in Britain will say how difficult it is to adopt a child in their home country. The reason it is ‘difficult’ is that the social services have a vigorous process to protect the child and will often deem the prospecting adults unsatisfactory. This is when many adopting parents embark on a form of child tourism. If the logic stands this means these child tourists, as a group, will have a high count of parents deemed inadequate by the British system.
The non-African people who want to take babies from Africa should have a clear understanding of history. A history where taking babies thousands of miles away, where their names are changed and where they will not know the language of their country is accepted. Does this remind you of anything? The non-African fascination with and ownership of the African child was evident in the days of Empire.
Look at the story of Alemayehu, the son of the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II who committed suicide when imprisoned by the British. Prince Aleymayehu was placed on a ship to Britain and under the guidance of Queen Victoria he was enrolled in a boarding school in Rugby. He died in Leeds aged eighteen of suspected pleurisy after years of loneliness. The prince claimed a bloodline from King Solomon and Queen of Sheba. He was buried at the crypt of St George at Windsor Castle. I hear his name is in the crypt but they wouldn’t allow his body to be buried there so it’s just outside. The Ethiopian government has requested the return of his bones.
Why do you think non-Africans want to adopt African children?
Having an African baby is often a sign to non-African adopters of their philanthropic, political, familial or religious credentials. The African child is a badge of honour displaying their commitment to philanthropy, politics or religion. They feel that by extricating a child from Africa and showing them the light of their way signifies their own righteousness.
Taking a child from another culture is an act of aggression. Why has no one looked into the history of trans-racial adoption by the Europeans? Where did it come from? The British have been taking African babies for many years and many for spurious reasons. The belief system of the prospecting parents (religion) and economics are often cited as reasons to take a child from his or her country. Some of these children are literally stolen and then laundered into the system.
Who does inter-country adoption most benefit – the child or the parent?
In many ‘adoptions’ the child is saving the parents because it is they who desperately need a child and not just because of infertility. They need it to fulfil who they are – as do most parents who conceive naturally. If they are not colonising the country then in this way they colonise a person. A child who has been taken from their country will in the future ask, ‘Why am I here?’ or else live in fear of asking that question. The answer, ‘We saved you from the dark bad continent and its dark, bad, needy, poor people and tyrannical governments’, will not do.
Non-Africans put in a lot of work to take the African child from their continent. These searching adults are victims of their own narrative. Europeans benefit from their lost Empire more in the present day than in the past. These adopting parents must re-educate themselves. And if they do re-educate they might find that taking a baby away from its country is a statement of intent that says more about their needs than the needs of a child.
Tell us about your experience of the 1960-80s British care system?
You could call it a shadow adoption. My mother came to England to study for a short time. Unbeknownst to her she was pregnant when she arrived. Her college helped her approach the social services for short-term fostering while she studied. I was born. On her behest the social worker gave me to foster parents and said, ‘Treat this as an adoption. He’s yours forever. His name is Norman’. The foster parents had chosen me. I was, they said, the chosen one. I was to become a missionary and return one day to Africa to save the poor African babies.
At eleven years old they put me into a children’s home and said they’d never contact me again. They’d had a third child of their own. I was twelve years old and took biscuits from the kitchen without asking and I came home late. They perceived this to be the devil working inside me when in fact it was simply adolescence, something they hadn’t experienced. The social services held me for six years in a series of emotionally brutal children’s homes. At seventeen they washed their hands of me and that’s when I received my birth certificate. It had a strange name upon it – Lemn Sissay. Angry with what had happened to me, the new social worker also gave me letters from my mother dated 1968. She was pleading for me back. She said: “How can I get Lemn back? I want him to be with his own people, in his own country. I don’t want Lemn to face discrimination’. Her letter was addressed to a social worker named Norman. He’d named me after himself.
I spent most of my adult life searching for her and my family and by 33 I’d found and met them all. My mother married a minister under Emperor Haile Selassie and my father was a pilot for Ethiopian Airlines who died in a plane crash in the early seventies. When people ask me where I am from I say England, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the world.
Intercountry adoption is surely better now than when you experienced it 30 years ago – for example parents go on courses to learn about how to nurture their adopted child’s culture…
Once non-African parents become educated about their own culture and its historical and contemporary relationship to Africa they will be ready to decide whether taking babies is a help to the story of Africa and its children. I fear the education of the prospecting adults is embarked upon only as a means to get the baby.
If they still decide to take an African child then yes, they should become educated in how to ‘acknowledge’ and ‘celebrate’ the ‘culture’ of a child ripped from its birth country. One of the ways to do this is to keep regular contact with the people and actual place/agency/birth parents or family from where the child was adopted.
Non-Africans taking African children from their country of origin is not a simple solution to a simple problem. In practise it is a woefully inadequate conclusion to a complex problem. It’s often said that love is all you need. But love without understanding is dangerous. Hitler loved Germany. Love is not all you need.
Put the shoe on the other foot. How would the Europeans feel if Africans started child tourism in England? They wouldn’t call it adoption. They would call it abduction.
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