American Homes for African Children
American Homes for African Children
October 09, 2007 9:00 AM
Listen to the Story
Mohammed Albakayi, (left), and Cheryl Carter-Shotts, (middle), photographed at a family dinner in 2004.
Courtesy Cheryl Carter-Shotts
Over the past few years, celebrities like Madonna and Angelina Jolie have brought attention to adopting children from Africa.
Cheryl Carter-Shotts adopted two children from Africa and now helps other Americans do the same.
Her adopted son, Mohammed Albakayi, talks about leaving his native Mali for a life in the States.
She founded the group, "Americans for African Adoption."
Transcript from Radio Show
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Mary-Louise Parker - all are entertainers who made headlines when they adopted children from Africa. But when Cheryl Carter-Shotts adopted her son Mohammed Albakaye from Mali, there were no TV cameras or reporters waiting at the airport.
Later, Cheryl adopted a daughter from Ethiopia and she went on to form Americans for African Adoption, which helps to tell potential parents how to adopt children from the continent. Cheryl and her son Mohammed recently shared their story with me.
Ms. CHERYL CARTER-SHOTTS (Founder, Americans for African Adoption): It's all Diane Sawyer's fault. I saw a 60-minute special when Diane was with "60 Minutes" back in 1985. And she was doing a story about the repeat cycle of famine in Mali, West Africa. She interviewed a little boy for 18 seconds. And it was Mohammed.
(Soundbite of TV show, "60 Minutes")
Ms. DIANE SAWYER (Host, "60 Minutes): Where do you sleep?
Mr. MOHAMMED ALBAKAYE (Adopted Son): Here.
Ms. SAWYER: On the ground?
Mr. ALBAKAYE: Yes.
Ms. SAWYER: Are you hungry?
Mr. ALBAKAYE: Yes.
Ms. SAWYER: All the time?
Mr. ALBAKAYE: Yes. Many children - they are dead.
Ms. SAWYER: You've seen many children die?
Mr. ALBAKAYE: Yes.
Ms. CARTER-SHOTTS: And I decided that, in my heart, Mohammed was my son, and I need to find him and bring him home. And I did.
CHIDEYA: What do you mean by, he was my son?
Ms. CARTER-SHOTTS: You know, here we are, all these years later - because that was in 1985 - and I still don't know why. I already had three biological children. I had never been out of the United States. I was not looking at the idea of adopting. And I hadn't thought about adopting Mohammed. I simply thought, that's my son and I have to find him and bring him home.
CHIDEYA: Mohammed, before your mother found you, after the "60 Minutes" interview, did you think your life was going to change? Or when the cameras left, did things go back to the way they were before?
Mr. ALBAKAYE: Things stayed pretty much the same for me except that after the last group of U.S. Army engineers came in to build a raft that transported food aid from one side of the Niger River to the other, where the people were, they took me in. I was their, what we call in Africa, their houseboy. I helped them do grocery errands. I helped translate for them in the markets and things like that. But I never expected anything like this at all.
Ms. CARTER-SHOTTS: What Mohammed didn't tell you is he spoke English, but he also spoke a total of six languages at that time - and still today.
CHIDEYA: How old were you, Mohammed?
Mr. ALBAKAYE: I was 13.
CHIDEYA: Cheryl, there's this boy - this young man, who you say, he's my child. Where do you go from then?
Ms. CARTER-SHOTTS: To the bank to borrow money. We had to borrow money. We had no money. And we had to - my husband, he had to go in (unintelligible) to the middle of the Sahara Desert and find him. We had no money for any of this. And they were standing…
CHIDEYA: Did you recognize him when you saw him in person?
Ms. CARTER-SHOTTS: I saw him first at the Indianapolis Airport. Absolutely. He was very tiny. I think he was smaller than I thought that he might be. He was 5'4", but he only weighed 65 pounds. And so he was extremely thin. I had had a banner made for him. It said, welcome to America, Mohammed. You will never be hungry again.
CHIDEYA: So Mohammed, first, tell me about what it meant to land in that airport.
Mr. ALBAKAYE: It was a very happy occasion for me because, first of all, I knew that my life would definitely change because of different conversations I had had with African - with other adult Africans who told me all these wonderful things about America and what to expect and the level of education that I would receive once I arrive here. And I was very much excited about all of that.
CHIDEYA: So Mohammed, when you found out that your birth mother was still alive, first of all, tell me what that felt like. And secondly, did you ever question - is Cheryl really mom? Is my birth mom really my mom? How did you deal with that?
Mr. ALBAKAYE: Well, when I first arrived, I really didn't understand what this whole adoption thing was all about. I thought I was brought here to be a houseboy, you know, and help clean around the house, and, you know, mow the lawn and do things like that. But I never expected that - it's such an alien concept for most Africans for somebody to take someone in as their own flesh and blood. You know, we take in relatives in Africa, but never - rarely, do we ever take in strangers. And when we do, they're never really considered part of your family, but they're never, like, treated as flesh and blood would as it is done here.
CHIDEYA: Now, Cheryl, a couple of controversial issues. Some African-American social workers and African-American families have said it's just not going to work culturally to adopt black kids into white families. Those white families can never give those kids an adequate cultural background. Second point, some people have argued that it's Adopt An African Orphan Day. That it's kind of like getting a nice Birkin bag, it's become really trendy with all the celebrities. What about those two issues?
Ms. CARTER-SHOTTS: To the trendy issue, I really don't like it at all. I really don't. If these children are being adopted because it's the in thing to do, that's the wrong thing to do. These are children who need a good family. They don't need to be in the arm of a celebrity who then passes them through all the news media.
But the news media has brought a great attention to the multiple needs in Africa. I fault the news media because they always talk about the millions of orphan children, but they really don't make it clear that the majority of orphan children in Africa are 5 years of age and up. And constantly, we get telephone calls from people wanting to adopt healthy baby girls, while we have children 5 years of age and older in Ethiopia and Liberia waiting for a family and siblings and HIV-positive children.
As far as the other issue of the black-white issue, it's something that kind of rubs me the wrong way. And it is something I have discussed with multiple African social workers who were in Africa. And they look at me with this strange look and say, unless it is a Liberian-American adopting a Liberian orphan, the culture is different. Unless, it's an Ethiopian-American adopting an Ethiopian, the culture is different. It's different if you're black or white. It's different if you're a Nigerian adopting from Ethiopia. The Nigerian culture is dramatically different than the Ethiopian culture. And so it seems to be much more of an issue with the African-American community than it is with the African community.
CHIDEYA: Mohammed, given all that you've been through, what do you think is the best part of going through this process of coming in to a new country and a new culture? And what has been the most difficult for you?
Mr. ALBAKAYE: The most - let's start with the difficult one first. The most difficult was my health problems. And in the early, early, early stages, the educational, I mean, aspects of it were really, really, really tough. And a positive aspect is getting a new family, people who love and care about you. I think anybody who gets that is definitely…
Mr. ALBAKAYE: Benefiting. Yeah. It's a big plus. It's a big plus.
CHIDEYA: Well, Cheryl and Mohammed, thank you so much for sharing your story.
Mr. ALBAKAYE: Thank you very much, Farai.
Ms. CARTER-SHOTTS: You're welcome. Thank you for having us.
CHIDEYA: Cheryl Carter-Shotts is with Americans for African Adoptions. And we also heard from her son, Mohammed Albakaye, who was adopted from Mali in 1985.
And you can learn more about her organization at our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org.