"Is that your child?"
I hear this asked in Swahili quite often. Always with an air of incredulity.
Usually, I smile, look the person straight in the eye, and give a determined, "Yes!"
And if there is time and opportunity, I try to explain. It's hard. There is no word in Swahili for adoption, except for a legal term that most people don't know. So I say something that roughly translates as, "I have taken these children to be my own, kabisa (totally, absolutely)!"
Sometimes the person looks confused. Sometimes she looks amused. Sometimes the person says, "That's wonderful! God will bless you for that!" To which I respond, "God has already blessed me with these children!"
But Tanzanians, in general, don't "get" it. Why is adoption such a foreign concept here? Why won't even women who have undergone the pain of infertility or multiple miscarriages consider it? Why do our social workers often seem so reluctant to help us, when there are so many babies in orphanages? So, over the years, Gil and I have asked these questions of our Tanzanian friends, especially the ones who understand both American and Tanzanian culture.
It's very interesting. One friend said recently, "It's like adoption is already assumed in the culture among families." Very true. There really is no such thing as the immediate family in Tanzania. For example, there is no word in Swahili for "cousin." Tanzanians call their cousins "brothers" and "sisters." You don't have uncles....you have your "Daddy," your "Big Daddy," and your "Younger Daddy." Your "Big Daddy" (oldest paternal uncle) actually has more authority over you and your life than your own father does. And this extended family is extremely important to your identity. Your family's tribe and clan defines who you are--far more than we can understand in the West.
So if a mother dies or is unable to care for her child, traditionally, that child is simply enveloped into the extended family. Rarely does a legal adoption process take place. The system has worked well for generations. That is, until AIDS entered the continent of Africa and took over 10% of the population. Then there were too many orphans for the extended family to care for. Of course, there are other reasons too, but that is a big one.
As a result, orphanages have sprung up all over sub-Saharan Africa. The vast majority of these children have living family members, possibly even a father or mother. But for some reason, their family can't care for them. However, those family ties are still the most important aspect of that child's identity. So the family would rather have the child live his whole life in an orphanage than put the child up for adoption. The idea of cutting those family ties and essentially "giving" the child to someone else is just unheard of. The child is the possession of the extended family. And that child's sense of self is bound up in that family. In theory, anyway. It's more important than the child's education, or standard of living, or whether or not that child grows up feeling loving and wanted.
There is, however, one group of children that the culture does not account for: The Abandoned Ones. Our lawyer estimates that there are about 500 children abandoned (who survive) every year in Tanzania. Left in fields or churches or outhouse pits. Their families cannot be traced. They have no family, no hope, no future, no nothing. And every time we ask a Tanzanian friend about what the culture says to do with these children, there is no answer.
All of this raises interesting issues, of course. And it's not just Tanzanians who don't understand adoption--especially transracial adoption. I know that many African-Americans frown upon transracial adoption. The adoption laws in Tanzania recently got much, much stricter--and will limit the number of foreigners who can adopt here (as if there were that many in the first place!). And the person who pushed for this new adoption bill? Apparently it was a Swiss UN worker who believes that adoption is not the answer for these children (especially adoption by foreigners).
It's an important question to consider. It's very true that even though my children are growing up in Tanzania and we are trying to help them learn Swahili and Tanzanian culture, they will never be totally Tanzanian. They will grow up with dual citizenship, and despite our best efforts, may end up feeling most comfortable in American culture. And so I must ask myself: Have I stolen something invaluable from my children? Will they hate me for it? Will they never feel as if they belong anywhere? Have I stolen something from Tanzania?
I have wrestled with these questions. And honestly, though I can make arguments on how familial love and connection is more important than cultural identity, ultimately, my answers lie in the Gospel.
1. God loves adoption. We were born children of Satan; He has bought us back to be adopted into His family. Each one of us who is part of His family has been adopted.
2. We all started out as part of the same race. We are all human. God loves culture, but not one culture over another. One culture is not inherently better than another culture. Thus, a child born into one culture will not suffer by being raised in another.
3. Our spiritual identity is more important than our ethnicity, our culture, or our family. First and foremost, I hope and pray that one day my children see themselves as children of God. That should be the basis of everything else.
4. The immediate family can and should be a microcosm of the Family of God--the Church--accepting and loving and joining with people from every tribe and tongue and nation.
My children will inevitably struggle with their identity. But so does almost every student we work with at HOPAC who is being brought up between worlds. And we will tell our own children the same thing we tell our students: "Yes, you will struggle with where you belong. But you have a unique view of the world, a unique understanding of multiple cultures that cannot be gained any other way. And that is a precious gift that God can use to bring His glory in His world."
YES, they are Tanzanian. and YES, they are totally and absolutely my children. Kabisa! To God be the Glory.
For a fantastic article on this subject, go here.