This was the fourth of five stories in a series on international adoption by myself and Calgary Herald writers Robin Summerfield and Kelly Cryderman.

A continent of orphans; Africans fear adoption will rob their future

© copyright
The Calgary Herald
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

By Robert Remington
GULU, Uganda

As a foreigner approaches, one-year-old Emma runs to the arms of Charles Kiyimba and begins to cry. “Babaa,” she wails, using the word for father in her native Acholi language.

Kiyimba, director of the SOS Children’s Village in Gulu, is babaa to 105 orphaned children, many of them made so by northern Uganda’s recent 22-year civil war. Some, like Emma, were born in the bush to rebel soldiers who were killed. Their mothers, abducted by rebels and themselves barely out of childhood, either abandoned their babies or perished in the conflict.

“All of the children here are victims,” Kiyimba says. “Some were born to the rebels. Others have parents who were victims of HIV. Here, we have many people living in camps and disease can strike very fast.”

According to the United Nations International Childrens’ Fund (UNICEF), there are an estimated 2.3 million orphans like Emma in Uganda. Few are available for adoption. Although one in six children in this central African nation are without parents, cultural and societal values make adoption difficult.

“The concept of adoption I would say is foreign to Africa,” says Ocheng Vincent Ocen, a Baptist minister and director of the Gulu school district. He says African society, with its deep-rooted extended family system, makes adoption almost unheard of except when relatives cannot be located, such as in desperate cases of children abandoned in railway stations, on doorsteps, or even discarded into latrines.

“Most of our people, because of the extended family system, resist very much uprooting children from their communities,” says Norbert Mao, chairman of the war-ravaged Gulu northern district. “We have orphans, no doubt, but these orphans have at least some relative and our extended family system gives room for them.”

Reluctance to give up children for adoption exists throughout many African nations. “Relatives will take care of you even if they are poor. It is because of our belief in the extended family,” says Alex Lengeju, director of the SOS village in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

UNICEF estimates there are an astonishing 48.3 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, a figure that will rise to 53.1 million by 2010. One quarter of those have lost their parents to AIDS. With conflicts and other diseases ravaging an entire generation, Africa is becoming a continent of orphans.

Despite these staggering numbers, many African nations are loathe to adopt out these children internationally due to a mistrust of the intentions of foreigners, a fear of losing their future generation and an underlying belief that the need to give away one’s children is symbolic of your failure as a nation.

In East Africa, it is common to find women like 34-year-old Lucia Buyanza, a nurse in Nairobi’s Kibera slum in neighbouring Kenya, who looks after seven children from her three brothers and sisters, all of whom died of AIDS. Where no siblings survive, grandmothers like RoseMary Nyega, 78, step in. Nyega, who lives at Lalogi, a camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in Uganda’s Gulu district, looks after 12 orphans.

“I am overwhelmed by the responsibility of bringing up all these orphans. I have

photo by Robert Remington

photo by Robert Remington

been staying here since 1997 and I see nowhere to go. This is my only home,” she told Uganda’s independent Monitor newspaper. Hers is a common story. “The grandmothers of Uganda have saved this nation from ruin,” says one community leader in Kampala, the Uganda capital.

The raising of children also falls on the shoulders of older siblings, many of whom are forced to drop out of school to take on the responsibility.

“There are many child-headed families here,” says Angie Openie, head teacher at a school in the Palenga IDP camp south of Gulu, which houses 15,000 internally displaced persons. Palenga and Lalogi are among 53 camps for 460,000 people in the Gulu district of northern Uganda who have been displaced by the 22-year conflict between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army.

Children under 15 account for more than half of the population of the IDP camps, according to some population counts.

Adoptions that do occur in Uganda are arranged mostly through orphanages like the long-established Sanyu Babies Home in Kampala. But, even working through the Sanyu orphanage, it is difficult for foreigners to adopt. Fears of human trafficking and selling children for body parts are cited by the home’s director. Last year, a regional conference on anti-human trafficking heard that Ugandan police were investigating two orphanages suspected to be involved in trafficking of orphans outside the country.

Ugandans and other Africans prefer to arrange internal adoptions. Even then, there are concerns about a child losing its cultural identity in a nation with 17 different tribal groups and where the degree of blackness of one’s skin is a clue to regional identity. “Even sending kids from Gulu to go to school within other parts of Uganda has raised a lot of protests from members of the extended families,” says Mao. “So, I can imagine that if somebody is adopted and completely flown away, there may be some resistance.”

When international adoptions do occur, the process is tedious and the circumstances often extraordinary, as Calgary’s Tandela Swann can attest.

“They found him in a pit latrine. He was in the bottom, apparently. From the hospital reports I saw, they said he had maggots coming out of his ears. They were guessing that he had been down there 24 hours.”

Tandela Swann was 22, single and fresh out of university when she went to Uganda to volunteer at an orphanage in September 2003. Assigned to the 10 most desperate cases, the Albertan took a special interest in the pit latrine baby the staff had named Mark. He was eight months old and weighed seven pounds when she arrived at the orphanage in the southern city of Jinja, on Lake Victoria near the source of the Nile River.

Despite her best efforts to nurture him, Mark was not sleeping normally, refused to eat and was unresponsive to human contact. He had chronic infections. A doctor gave him another month to survive, saying the child had no will to live.

“It was at that point I realized I had a real attachment to him,” says Swann. “I was willing to do whatever it took, whether it was just for that month or 60 or 70 years. I wanted to take care of this child.”

Swann took three weeks off work and brought Mark to her apartment in Jinja. “I spent 24/7 with him. He screamed and screamed and I cried and cried and cried. I was up at all hours thinking ‘what the heck am I doing?’ It was scary. I was 22 in a foreign country, I had never been a parent. What am I doing? But it was just one of those things. I already felt like he was my child and you do what you have to do to fight for your child.”

Swann slept with the baby next to her, giving him as much human contact as possible. She was in anguish about his plight. “I went through a stage of feeling really angry. Who can do that to a child? But until you live there and live their lives, you can’t possibly understand.”

Although Mark was found in central Uganda, he has the darker skin tone of those from northern Uganda, giving rise to the possibility that he may be the son of a child mother who had been abducted and given as a wife to a rebel soldier. One day, near the end of the three weeks, Mark began eating properly. He started sitting up and making noises.

“I remember the first day he made eye contact with me,” Swann recalls. “I was giving him a bottle and I just knew something was different. I thought then he would make it.”

Despite all of Swann’s care and attention for the baby, Ugandan law places restrictions on the ability of foreign citizens to adopt the country’s unwanted children. The Children’s Act states that a foreign citizen may, in exceptional circumstances, adopt a Ugandan child if the foreigner has resided in the country for at least three years and has fostered the child for 36 months. Foreign adoptive parents must also be 22 years older than the child, have no criminal record, and demonstrate that they have been approved by their country of nationality to adopt.

However, High Court judges have made some exceptions on a case-by-case basis if it is deemed in the best interest of the child. Judges have also exercised discretion in approving legal guardianship decrees, an easier process that permits the child to emigrate for final adoption abroad.

But Ugandan adoption laws are loose and officials often corrupt. Swann would encounter both.

Working with a Ugandan probation officer, she was allowed to take Mark to Calgary, which required that she travel to Nairobi, to the only Canadian embassy in the region, for a visa and other paperwork. In Calgary, Swann contacted an agency to help her with the adoption. But with Uganda not being a signatory to the Hague Convention on international adoptions, there was little they could do.

She decided to go through the normal adoption requirements of Alberta, hoping that Uganda officials would accept the paperwork. She paid $2,000 for a home study, which includes background checks and a half-dozen interviews. Every six months, she wrote to her Ugandan probation officer updating him on Mark’s progress.

After three years, in November of 2006, she flew with Mark back to Uganda for a final court hearing to approve his adoption. The probation officer, whose appearance at the court hearing is mandatory, demanded $500, a common practice that involves a kickback to the judge. Swann refused to pay.

“I had committed that I wasn’t going down that road because I didn’t want to feed into that system,” Swann explains. Although there was an official posting saying his office did not accept money, “it means nothing,” says Swann.

Foreigners often pay the fee as an accepted part of the process, but Swann says it affects the ability of locals to get a child. The probation officer backed down, only because the judge hearing her case was in a different locale and the two were not in cahoots, Swann believes. She also had to pay her Uganda lawyer $2,500, a princely sum by local standards.

With airfare and travel within Africa, the adoption cost about $8,000. Mark, now five, is doing remarkably well with Swann in Calgary.

“I don’t think it will always be easy but it’s been great so far. He’s just a great kid.”

Tandela chose the middle name Kirab for her son. It is taken from kirabo, the Ugandan word for gift. Her own name, Tandela, is a South African word that means love. The daughter of Calgary MLA David Swann, her name was given to her by her parents, who both did their medical internships in South Africa.

Mark is one of the lucky ones. But with few Uganda children given up for international adoptions, what are the alternatives for these children?

According to Mao, Ugandans may become more open to international adoptions if adoptive parents are willing to maintain contact with a child’s African relatives and teach them about their culture. In interviews with people throughout the East African nations of Kenya and Tanzania, the message is the same.

“Someone who is carrying out the adoption will have to accept that this child will have to be introduced to the relatives, rather than being told, you know, ‘the only people who love you are the people who have adopted you.’ I believe that will require a change of attitude,” Mao says.

“On our side, people must accept that adoption is also an opportunity for these children to access a better life, get new families and get a better education. So, it’s up to us, too, and it will take time to change attitudes.”

Attitudes are changing, but slowly. “It’s getting better. Children are saying ‘why didn’t you adopt me away because here I have no job, no education, no family,’ ” says Angelina Atyam, who was awarded a United Nations human rights prize in 1998 for her work on behalf of kidnapped children in Uganda. Her 13-year-old daughter was one of thousands of children abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army to be used as soldiers or to become “wives” to LRA commanders.

Ugandans, and many Africans, remain more receptive to guardianships and sponsorships over adoption.

Organizations such as SOS Children’s Villages, for example, fit nicely with the African notion of the extended family. The SOS model, set up to deal with European orphans after the Second World War, involves the establishment of local “villages” where orphans are cared for within their communities by local women hired as surrogate mothers in family-like groups with other orphans who become surrogate siblings. SOS operates today in 132 countries.

But all those villages are expensive to run, and they care for only 72,000 children among millions.

“If we built a new village every week, it wouldn’t be very efficient,” says Boyd McBride, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Canada. As an alternative, the organization is expanding its “famility strengthening” program, which gives financial support to families that are at risk of abandoning their children due to poverty. SOS hopes to accommodate 900,000 families in the program within seven years, up from the 160,000 families it currently sponsors. The program, like the villages, allows SOS-sponsored children to be cared for close to home.

“People here prefer to have children looked after in Gulu,” says Kiyimba.

When she was adopting Mark, Swann heard similar views, and the criticism that she was removing the nation’s future.

“It is not something Ugandans would even think of, adoption. The message I got from a lot of people is that you are removing our resource by taking these children away and not teaching them about their culture or being an African or being a Ugandan,” says the Calgarian.

“I understand that. But what I would say back to them is if these children are all running on the street, how are they a resource? My goal is to raise my son up to know who he is both as a Canadian and a Ugandan — and hope he can go back and make some changes in his own country.”

Swann, who is completing a master’s degree in international social work, wants to return to Uganda with Mark.

“Uganda is a beautiful country with beautiful people and I want Mark to appreciate who he is. It’s not about removing him from his culture. It’s about giving him a future.”


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