Why don't Africans adopt much, and get very upset when white people take up black babies?

Black couples don’t adopt—so why are they up in arms when needy children move across cultures

EVERY so often, black Africans debate the adoption of black babies by white couples, and it can get agitated. Who can forget that furore over pop star Madonna’s adoptions in Malawi?

Many argue that in a white family, the child will grow up with a conflicted sense of identity, never quite fitting in while yearning to be with their “own”. Reasons proffered for this assessment range from the cultural to even the colonial—that white folks are still taking away from Africa.

Officialdom all over the continent also propagates this social angst, but in some countries it is more acute—the South African government’s stated policy is to first place a child with the same race, with ‘transracial’ adoption an option if this fails. 

Yet the amount of red tape couples, even black ones, have to vault just to get on the register at the country’s Department of Social Development can put off all but the most obsessed.

Available South African statistics show that while the overall number of adoptions is declining, those of black babies by white families have been on the rise—but you have to remember a large part of this is because there are already so few white babies who are up for adoption.

White attitudes to adoption
Still, the fact remains—white couples are still more willing to adopt black babies, than black couples are. And a black couple seeking to adopt a white child is almost unheard of. Yet you would think that with an increasing number of black couples struggling to conceive, adoption would be the next logical step to explore for such a couple that have experienced years of heartache, in addition to the constant pressure from in-laws. 

Needless to say, in many black communities in Africa, most of the blame for failing to conceive falls almost squarely on the shoulders of women—a terribly discriminating view propagated even by the most highly educated men: generally a man’s virility is never in doubt, even when science proves otherwise.

But for those couples who are able to transcend this and are willing to try fertility treatments, many find it can be a very expensive, arduous and emotionally taxing process, and doesn’t guarantee success.

My own experience suffices. As someone that struggled with secondary infertility, I can fully appreciate the anxiety and anguish that comes with not being able to conceive without medical assistance. After seeing three doctors and four years of trying unsuccessfully to conceive, we were lucky to be introduced to one of South Africa’s top fertility specialists, and fell pregnant within eight months of receiving treatment. 

Mine was thankfully a hormonal imbalance problem (which is hereditary) that only required a series of tests and chemical rebalancing of the hormones. No one should be under the impression that it was an easy journey.

So why are a lot of black couples not open to adopting, but are first to oppose when other races adopt abandoned black babies that could benefit from being placed in a loving and stable home irrespective of the colour or culture of its prospective family?  

And with an always-rising rate of teenage pregnancy, one can expect the number of abandoned children to rise—nearly 400 babies, the majority of them black, have been abandoned in Gauteng (which ropes in Johannesburg and Pretoria) hospitals alone over the past three years. It would thus make sense for more black families to adopt.

Not a simple decision
Admittedly, it is not a simple decision. Arrayed powerfully against it for one is culture. The argument is that the child does not share the same blood heritage and therefore would never be accepted by the ancestors. Although many families are adopting a more Westernised way of life, many are still strongly rooted in cultural practices where rituals take place when a child is born.

Some of these are done to request blessings and protection for the newborn. For their adherents, failing to observe them can mean the difference between a successful and miserable existence for the little one, or ill fate for the entire family, much in the similar way that a Christian may view Christianity.

Linked to this is the fear of judgment from family members and the community, the added worry being that the child will never be fully accepted into the family.

There is the issue of inheritance: should the parents die, will the child, especially if a minor, get what is rightfully due to them, even in the parents had in the unlikely instance drawn up a will stating that the adopted child is entitled to part of the estate? Many children face great animosity from blood relatives over property sharing.

Would couples be more willing to adopt if such challenges were not a worry? Granted, many black people already help to raise extended family members, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why we may not adopt in large numbers. However for the couple that is desperate, but is simply not able to conceive or undergo fertility treatment, could this not be the next option?

Using the black cultural argument, I would like to believe that the ancestors may have wise souls among them that might hear the cries of the struggling couple and allow them the blessing of a child even if may not be from their own lineage. We like to say that we are a people full of Ubuntu and that “it takes a whole village to raise a child”, does the same not apply to Africa’s abandoned babies?  

I really think that if the society were more open to adoption, and remove the various stigma and pressures linked to infertility, we could successfully kill two birds with one stone: give childless couples the freedom to raise and love an adopted child as their own without reservations, as well as giving children an opportunity to get a good start in life.

By so doing, perhaps we could help deal with the challenge of abject poverty and suffering that many of Africa’s children are subjected to. Let’s think about it more openly, not only on this World Adoption Day that we marked on November 9, but all through the year.

—Palesa Thinane-Epondo is an avid traveller and commentator on socio-economic issues in Africa. She is based in Johannesburg.

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