The Sunday Mail
Debra Matabvu —
When Nelson Mandela was nine-years-old, his father died of lung disease and he was adopted by Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo. Today, the world largely remembers him as South Africa’s first democratically-elected president and not an adopted child.
Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States, was raised by a stepfather. Steve Jobs, the genius behind Apple, was adopted and never in his life met his biological father.
American civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson; Michael Bay, the man behind the “Transformers” movie franchise; John Lennon of the Beatles; actor Jamie Foxx; and writer Edgar Allan Poe were all adopted.
What does it matter, one may ask. In Zimbabwe, it is a big deal. Both traditional and standard adoption are quite an issue for largely conservative Zimbabweans, who are yet to warm up to the idea of raising someone else’s child.
There has always been a poor understanding of the practice, except as a traditional expectation of the extended family – and even then to quite a limited extent.
Fear and ignorance, it seems, have been allowed to reign. In cases where children are adopted by those outside their blood relations, there is often a scare-mongering narrative of being haunted by spirits from their lineage.
At the centre of such fears are untested age-old claims that someone of a different tribe or totem cannot be integrated into a family unit of a different tribe or totem.
There are cases where people ask their foster parents to be returned to their “original” families. It gets worse in cases where the adopted child unfortunately dies. It is believed that the spirit of the deceased will not rest unless certain rites are observed.
So, more often than not, prospective adopting parents are often reminded of avenging spirits that will torment the family once the adopted child dies in their care.
Such unwanted baggage that comes with what is supposed to be a joyous experience of welcoming someone into a new family tends to frighten prospective parents out of considering such an act.
This might help to explain why adoption has largely remained low in African countries, Zimbabwe included. Secretary for Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Mr Ngoni Masoka said last week only 54 children had been adopted since 2010. Five of them were adopted by foreigners.
“The major hindrances to the adoption of children in Zimbabwe are unfounded socio- cultural beliefs. People are afraid of avenging spirits in the event that the child dies in his or her adoptive family and also due to the prevailing socio-economic challenges confronting families.
“They would rather look after their own than look after a person they are not related to who will increase the burden of care to the family,” he said.
Statistics show that couples that decide to adopt prefer to take in minors aged below five years, of which 30 have been adopted in the review period. Only 17 children aged six to nine years have found a home, while seven aged between 11-18 were adopted.
The assumption is it is easier to bond with a child in their formative years. These children are also easier to discipline as compared to their counterparts who are adopted when they are older, some argue.
The Child Protection and Adoption Act (1989) empowers anyone to apply for adoption. Adoption takes anything between three to six months, and upon completion visits by the authorities will have to be made within the first six months to assess the child’s integration into the new family.
Deciding the frequency of these visits thereafter, especially for five years from the date of the adoption, is to the discretion of the supervising officer. Even though the process has been simplified, people remain reluctant to adopt.
There are organisations that believe adoption is a process that is alien to this part of the world. Zimbabwe National Practitioners Association president Sekuru Friday Chisanyu said it was not advisable to adopt children.
“As Africans, we have totems that are connected to the spiritual realm that we identify with and live with for the rest of our lives,” he said. “That cannot be amended or changed by documents or laws of the land.
We come across cases of families who have been tormented by spirits after an adopted child has passed on or even when the child is still alive.
“Thus, in our African Traditional Religion it is unadvisable for one to adopt a stranger. It is only among siblings were only child adoption can take place.”
And with many people grappling with economic challenges, adoption could be costly.
This is why foster care has become the norm. Foster care refers to a system in which a minor is placed in a ward, group home, or private home of a state-certified caregiver, referred to as a “foster parent”.
The placement of the child is normally arranged through Government or a social services agency. The system allows the child to stay with foster parents beyond 18 years of age as compared to institutional care, where termination of services is done at age 18.
Despite such a framework, thousands of children continue to be outside a family unit. According to the Department of Social Welfare, as of January this year, 9 100 children in Zimbabwe were living outside family units. Roughly 3 977 of those children were living in institutions, while 203 were on the streets.
An estimated 212 are living in foster care, while 4 708 are unaccompanied children living in child-headed families. University of Zimbabwe lecturer in the Department of Social Work Mr Charles Dziro said there was need for Government to put in place policies that supported foster care.
“Although I have noticed that people are beginning to accept adoption probably due to the education and western values, foster care is more feasible,” he said. “What is needed now is for Government to put in place policies that protect and promote these foster cares as well as the children.”
Christians, however, believe the world is a better place when humans are able to help each other without discrimination based on tribe and religion. Senior Seventh-day Adventist Church official Dr Obert Mudzengi said everyone was susceptible to evil spirits attacks regardless of their background.
“Remember what the Bible says in Matthew 25:35. As Christians we should not be held back from doing what is right because of fear. Anyone can be attacked by evil spirits regardless of background. We need to give these children a second chance and help them to grow into people whom God wants them to be.”