Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It's about time: A voice from Africa

In all the hubbub and bluster swirling around Madonna's latest adoption adventure, it hadn't occurred to me until I stumbled across this Washington Post article that most of the commentary has emanated from this side of the equator. Written by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the article offers a voice and perspective that have been conspicuously absent-- namely, an African one. Although the article was occasioned by Madonna's adoption of David Banda from Malawi several years ago, it is as relevant now as it was then, and should perhaps be required reading for any Westerner contemplating international adoption--especially adoption from Africa.

Two moments of press coverage inspired Adichie's piece. The first was an interview with Madonna in which the pop star noted concern that the media circus that surrounded her adoption of David would discourage others from adopting from Africa. According to Adichie, Madonna expressed hope for the opposite outcome: "She wanted people to go to Africa and see what she had seen; she wanted them, too, to adopt." The second moment was coverage of David's biological father. Adichie writes: "watching David Banda's biological father speak about being grateful that she would give David a 'better life, I could not help but look away. The power differential was so stark, so heartbreakingly sad; there was something about it that made Africa seem terribly dispensable."

The article that follows develops an extraordinarily nuanced and pointed analysis of the distorted Western understanding of Africa that appears to underlie Madonna's characterization of adoption as the humanitarian intervention Africa needs--the idea, as Adichie puts it, "that one helps Africa by adopting her children":

It is easy to romanticize poverty, to see poor people as inherently lacking agency and will. It is easy to strip them of human dignity, to reduce them to objects of pity. This has never been clearer than in the view of Africa from the American media, in which we are shown poverty and conflicts without any context.

If I were not African, I would, after watching the coverage, think of Africa as a place of magnificent wild animals in which black Africans exist as tour guides, or as a place of desperately poor people who kill or are killed by one another for little or no reason.

"Surely," she concludes, "the future for Africa should be one in which Africans are in a position to raise their own children." And surely, she suggests, adoption will not help Africa get there. Indeed.

Let me be clear: Adichie is not anti-adoption. In fact, she gives plaudits to Madonna's funding of orphanages in Malawi. Her point is not that adoption is bad, but that adoption is not the solution to Africa's problems, and that Madonna missed a critical opportunity to use her celebrity status to do real good:

I wish, however, that instead of asking television viewers to go to Africa and adopt, she had asked them to send a check to malaria-eradication organizations. I wish she had added, after one of those thoughtfully dramatic pauses, that Africa cannot depend on aid alone, that aid is like salted peanuts: The more failed leaders got, the more they wanted. I wish she had said that she was setting up an organization to use donations as micro-credit and that this organization, by the way, would be run by locals rather than expatriate staff whose expatriate salaries raise the rent in the cities.

I wish she had pointed out, with suitable celebrity-style rage, that Western countries need to stop appeasing and propping up hopeless African leaders, that Western banks must stop enabling and accepting stolen money from these leaders, that Western donors who insist on the free movement of capital across borders must also insist on the free movement of labor, that Western trade subsidies make it impossible for Africans to compete.

How clear that is, and how compelling. But will it interrupt the perennial conversation about adoption being a means of saving children? Of adoptees being "lucky"? Of adoptive parents being cast as selfless saviors? Adoptees are sick of hearing it. I'm sick of hearing it. And I appreciate Adichie's good sense, bringing us back to earth with a characterization of international adoption that we could all do with hearing more often:

Madonna will give David a better life, at least a materially better life: better food, housing, books. Whether this will make him a happier and normatively better human being is open to debate.

Yes, it is. And I suspect there's a whole generation of adult adoptees that would agree that this is an open question.

Given cultural and material circumstances too personal to divulge here--and making the assumption that these circumstances could not have been changed--I believe that adoption MAY have been the best possible outcome for my son. (He is the only one who will be able to say for sure.) I do not, however, believe that I saved him. And I certainly don't believe that the Western world I brought him to is better than the African world he left. There are losses and gains on both sides, and because he could only live one life--only live one of two possible paths--neither of us will ever truly know the extent of the losses or the gains. But that's not to say that there won't be grieving. That unknown other life that he did not live--and my part in deciding that--is what he will have to make peace with. That is what David Banda will have to make peace with. Let's hope his mother will have given up the notion that she saved him by then.

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