Adoption in Zambia and the Paradox of Ubuntu

By Guest Blogger: Margaret Mwewa

family life

The news that American supermodel, Tyra Banks, welcomed her baby last week, via a surrogate, had me reflecting about why the concepts of surrogacy and adoption in our Zambian culture are generally unacceptable.

It takes a village to raise a child, is a popular African maxim which embodies the spirit of ubuntu, loosely translated as the spirit of togetherness or sense of community. This spirit of ubuntu was clearly present in my community when I was growing up in the 90s. In that era, almost every family in my neighborhood, including mine, had one or more dependants in the household at some point. The concept of a nuclear family was as alien as cell phones in those days.

I have an aunt and uncle who early in their marriage, discovered that they could not have children due to a medical issue. Their marriage survived somehow in spite of this, and they got children from extended family members to raise as their own. Those children have since grown up and established their own independent lives. I had always wondered why my aunt and uncle had never legally adopted those children as their own. If they could not adopt them because those children’s biological parents were alive and well, why did they never adopt orphaned children from the wider society?

So, recently, I took the chance to ask my aunt whether she had ever considered adoption as an option when she first learned that they could not have their own biological children. She said she had considered it. However, her husband and the entire family felt insulted that she had even considered wanting to raise what they termed as a stranger, instead of taking in children from within the extended family.

According to my grandmother, infertility was considered a serious misfortune in the African tradition. If the man was the one who could not have children, the woman would be allowed secretly to lie with her husband’s close family member, in order to produce children for her husband. If it was the woman who could not bear children, it was even worse because she was publicly shamed like it was her fault she could not bear children, and the husband was naturally encouraged to replace her with another woman who could do the job.

Today, couples who find themselves unable to have children resort to all sorts of desperate measures to rectify the situation; like paying a lot of money to undergo ridiculous rituals prescribed by wacky witchdoctors, attending unending prayer sessions with phony prophets, or committing adultery in the hope that another person will be able to give them the children that their spouse is incapable of giving them. Now, let me make it very clear that I have nothing against fervently praying for a miracle, or using traditional medicine in the quest to procreate. However, both these types of interventions are often never successful.

How about surrogacy? Surrogacy is the practice of giving birth to a baby for another woman who is unable to have babies herself. This is a controversial topic throughout the world. The BBC reports that there are no international recognised laws for surrogacy. Many countries still prohibit it. However, some countries, like the United States of America (USA), have legal frameworks in place that protect the surrogate, the intended parents and the child. Chances are that many people in our conservative nation are instantly repulsed by the idea of surrogacy, but I think some women would be interested in being surrogates, at a fee, of course, or for nothing at all, in order to help out fellow women who have fertility problems. Our country does not even have laws governing this subject, so it is not even a viable idea that Zambian couples with fertility issues can think of.

Why is it that Zambian couples can never consider adoption as a more practical and responsible way of having children when nature fails them? Why are Zambians comfortable with the idea of committing adultery in order to have children that they cannot have within the marriage, and raising extended family members’ children, instead of adopting orphaned or abandoned children who are plenty in orphanages? Of course, people argue that the bond you could have, or the love you could feel for an adoptive child can never equal the one you would feel for a biological child you carried in a belly for nine months. That may be true. In a perfect world, everyone would be capable of producing their own offspring the normal way. The real world, however, is very different.

Many of these orphaned and abandoned children languishing in orphanages in our country could have a much better life than they have living in those places, if Zambians were agreeable to the concept of adoption, instead of resorting to desperate and dangerous measures to have children. We look down on the concept of surrogacy and adoption, but claim to be proud of our culture of ubuntu. We can raise our extended family members’ children, but cringe at the thought of adoption. Therein lies, the paradox.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines culture as “The customs and beliefs, art, way of life and social organisation of a particular country or group.” It is said that culture is dynamic, meaning it changes over time. People create culture and not vice versa. Therefore, it follows that people can improve or indeed change their culture to suit new situations. As Zambians, let us not be prisoners of our cultural norms that no longer make sense and are detrimental to our lives. The fact is, not everything in African culture is good, and not everything in the Western culture is bad. We should be flexible enough to adopt certain cultural norms from other cultures which are good and get rid of our own customs which are ridiculous and redundant in our modern lives. We have adopted so many Western customs such as modern clothing, education and white weddings. So, why can we not adopt the culture of adoption too, especially that it is not a harmful thing?

When it comes to raising and caring for children, why is our spirit of ubuntu limited only to children of extended family members? Why can it not be extended to other vulnerable children in our society who need to be part of a loving family unit?

The HIV AIDS pandemic and the harsh economic environment have led to our society having so many abandoned and orphaned children. Non-governmental organisations such as SOS Children’s International and orphanages like Kasisi Children’s Home are doing a great job by taking in and raising these children, but their efforts alone are not enough. It is time that we, as individuals, did our part. Every child deserves a loving home to grow up in. I think that there should be no shame, judgement or embarrassment attached to adopting a child.


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