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Africa, Adoption, and the Western Mindset

by Dan Cruver Published Jun 14, 2013

*I originally blogged this post on December 9, 2010: “International Adoption and the Western Mindset.”

Conrad Mbewe

Conrad Mbewe, the pastor of Kabwata Reformed Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia, Africa, recently returned home from a visit to the United States. While here, he was surprised to learn how popular the adoption of African children has become in the United States. I found his thoughts about the practice of international adoption and the Westerner’s view of the African context very helpful. His blog post provides a necessary corrective to our sometimes blind enthusiasm. That’s not to say that we should not adopt internationally. This is to say, though, that when we do adopt from African countries, we should do so in a way that serves our African brothers and sisters in Christ and takes their cultural context into accountin a way that doesn’t value our desires and culture over theirs. We also need to remember that international adoption will never be the solution to the global orphan crisis, nor should it be. Rather, international adoption is one small component of a multi-faceted and complex solution. If there is a major component to a solution to the global orphan crisis, I’m convinced it is a gospel-centered movement of indigenous, in-country adoption and orphan care. Our primary focus as American Christians, then, should be to humbly come alongside our African brothers and sisters in Christ to work toward this end. There is so much that I probably should write about this now, but if I did, you would never get to reading Pastor Conrad Mbewe’s very helpful thoughts. Consider this post a conversation starter:

I have just returned from the USA. One of the major changes that I have observed from my earliest days of visiting that nation (i.e. from the late 1990s) is just how many families there are excited about and actually adopting African children. Whereas this phenomenon is not new, it has certainly grown exponentially. What I found rather surprising, however, was the lack of knowledge and appreciation of the African extended family system. So, although I initially set up this blog in order to give my church a peep into the outside world, I thought of writing a blog to inform the West about what is common knowledge back home. Whereas to the Western mind, an orphan, having lost both father and mother, is destined to either be adopted or spend the rest of his or her childhood days in an orphanage, to an African mind, the child still has many fathers and mothers, and consequently many homes to live in. Let me explain. (I apologise in advance for the unusual length of this blog).

In Africa, south of the Sahara, we have a system that is foreign to the social life of people in the West. It is popularly known as the extended family system. It goes something like this. My biological father’s brothers are also my fathers and my biological mother’s sisters are also my mothers. If your mind has processed that, let me add a little more. The wives of my biological father’s brothers are my mothers and the husbands of my biological mother’s sisters are my fathers . . . Often we speak in terms of ba tata mwaiche (younger father) and ba tata mukalamba (older father) when referring to the younger and older brothers of our fathers and ba mayo mwaiche (younger mother) and ba mayo mukalamba (older mother) when referring to the younger and older sisters of our mothers. However, it is not uncommon, especially when one is talking to a foreigner from the West for us to simply say in English “my father” when in the strictest sense we are referring to an uncle.

Read Pastor Conrad Mbewe’s entire blog post. It’s worth reading the comment section as well.

  • John

    And yet millions of African children live in orphanages or worse, on the street…

  • DanCruver

    Yes, that’s why I wrote that what is needed in Africa is “a GOSPEL-centered movement of indigenous, in-country adoption and orphan care.”

    But Africa is not the only continent that needs the continued growth a GOSPEL-centered movement. Every nation in the West needs the same thing. We in the U.S. have approximately 500,000 children in our foster care system. Over 20,000 children age out of our foster care system each year and another 100,000+ each year are waiting to be adopted.

    Much work to be done on both sides of the Atlantic…

  • Jason

    Dan, this is a very helpful perspective. The situation is much bigger than most of us realize. Adoption is about giving one child hope and the reality of a family but it is SO much more as well. Just like the layers of an onion there are big issues involved and also ways to think of the total global orphan crisis with a bigger picture in mind. Our culture is SO individualistic. I appreciate Pastor Mbewe’s caution to us in the west that we not take our children, adopted from Africa, out of Africa and forget about their culture, heritage, and extended family of origin. To do so causes pain. Continuing to keep our children connected with their birth-country and birth relatives will hopefully bring healing in many (yet unknown) ways.

  • Mary Hoyt

    amen and amen! i’m thrilled by the indigenous orphan care movements springing up in churches around the globe – it takes quite a bit of intentionality for int’l adoption agencies to do things in a way that does not threatening these burgening movements . For example, in Uganda many stories have come out of Ugandan couples being reading to adopt and then the child is suddenly given to an American family b/c the adoption fees the orphanage can get are so much higher. Of course, the American adoptive parents and the American adoption agency staff don’t know this is happening – it’s just a choice the orphanage makes when the opportunity is available – This is not a small problem – it’s real – I still believe int’l adoption and indigenous foster/adoption movements can exist together, but it is SO far from easy.


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