Thursday, May 24, 2012

On popular perceptions of adoption in Kenya

In August last year, a Kenyan media personality, Caroline Mutoko, announced on her Facebook page that she had just become a mother. At first glance, it may seem like there was nothing unusual about this. After all, motherhood is part of the natural order of things. This, however, was a special situation. The radio show host had just successfully adopted a baby girl and was happy to share her joy with her fans.


Predictably, the responses to her announcement ran the full gamut. They ranged from those which lauded her actions to those which cast aspersions on her motives for adoption. Of those who wrote negative comments, some were sure that she had adopted because she did not want to 'ruin her figure' with pregnancy and childbirth. Others were certain that she had adopted in order to prove she was a 'self-sufficient woman', with no need for a man. Yet others claimed that she was infertile and poked fun at her for this perceived shortcoming.

These negative comments were pretty ugly, and they also said a lot about the insecurities of the people who expressed them. Many of them suggested an underlying belief that one's social worth primarily came down to his or her capacity to perpetuate the family line: Only a 'true man' could impregnate a woman, and only a 'true woman' could give birth. Anybody who 'failed' this basic test was not quite 'man enough' or 'woman enough.' It seemed that these people imagined that a child could only bond with those to whom it was related by blood and that adults could only feel maternally or paternally protective towards their biological offspring. Hence, a woman who had not given birth to the child she was raising was a 'fake mother;' she was simply masquerading as a mom until the 'real mother' came along. To me, the very idea that a woman or man who took on full responsibility for another human being could be labeled a 'fake parent' was absurd. What was so fake about the affection, time, and resources they had chosen to give to these children? What was so fake about the fact that the children now had a place and family to call their own?


It is true that giving birth to a child is in and of itself important. If women were to stop giving birth, the human race would not last long. However, we all know that a newborn cannot mold itself into an emotionally-stable, productive, adult member of society. It takes a parent or parents to do that. It so happens that the biological parents of children are sometimes unable to play that role. People pass away, leaving their children orphaned, others are incapacitated by illness, others are overcome by addiction, while others don't have the desire or capacity to nurture their children. This is why we make it possible for others to step in and play the parenting role: to protect those children, to feed, clothe, and shelter them, and to teach them morals and values. When they succeed in raising happy, well-adjusted, young men and women, who are we to take that achievement away from them by calling them 'fake parents'?


Those who are dismissive of adoption seem to forget one crucial thing. Our societies have structures in place for the protection of many children whose parents are, for one reason or another, unable to parent them. These structures are called extended families. Think about it: How often does the average African nuclear family welcome a young brother, sister, niece, nephew, or cousin into the home, and support them through primary and secondary school, or even college? Do these relatives not become part and parcel of the home? Do we not consider them our brothers and sisters and share our resources, however limited, with them? For all practical purposes, this system is pretty similar to adoption. Perhaps the only difference between the two comes down to the legal formalities that define them. Legal adoption bestows upon the adopters the legally-recognized role of parents while fostering within the extended family proceeds even without legal recognition. Both situations are defined by a shared ideal. They seek to provide a child with a loving family and a safe place to call home.

Fortunately, Kenyan society has matured to the degree that legal adoption is steadily gaining legitimacy in the public's eyes. More people recognize everyday that there is more to parenting than conception, pregnancy, and childbirth. In addition, more people are willing to accept the idea that we are all stakeholders in our society. When children in our communities suffer from neglect or abuse, their pain and suffering reflect on us as a whole, not just on their biological parents or relatives. We have something to offer to our communities, something that goes beyond our capacity to bring vulnerable, little babies into the world. Hopefully, as time goes by, we will develop an expanded sense of the roles we can play as socially-responsible, adult members of our communities.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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