exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

Kenye: Adopting a new way of life


Adopting a new way of life

Matt Brown, Foreign Correspondent

  • Last Updated: March 20. 2009 2:07PM UAE / March 20. 2009 10:07AM GMT

Abandoned babies and toddlers are cared for at the New Life Home Trust Orphanage orphanage in Nairobi. Sarah Elliott for The National

NAIROBI // Ambros is a typical Kenyan 2½-year-old boy. He loves to play outside. He likes it when his older sister pushes him on the swing.

His favourite food is pancakes topped with bananas. But, unlike other Kenyans his age, when he asks his mother for a pancake, he does it in Swedish.

Mattias and Cecilia Ekhem, from a mid-sized town in central Sweden, are about half way through the rigorous process of adopting Ambros. Like all international couples hoping to adopt from this east African country, the Ekhems left their jobs and their lives back home and moved to Kenya in November to start down the bureaucratic and legal path that could take up to a year to complete.

The couple had always wanted a large family. But after having their daughter, Ellentin, now 10, they had trouble conceiving.

“Even if we couldn’t have more children, we weren’t finished with the thought of a big family,” said Mr Ekhem, 38.

An adoption agency in Sweden and a partner agency in Kenya matched the Ekhems with Ambros. Like many of the Kenyan children waiting to be adopted, Ambros was abandoned at birth. The toddler, who has big eyes, light milk chocolate skin and soft curly hair, was raised in an orphanage in central Kenya. When the couple first met Ambros, he quickly warmed up to his new parents.

“At first he was shy, but you could tell he was happy to see us,” said Mrs Ekhem, 38. “After one hour he was hugging us and he felt comfortable with us. He could not have been more perfect.”

It has become popular for western families to adopt from Africa, where poverty and Aids have created a generation of orphaned children.

Celebrities like Madonna and Angelina Jolie have even made it trendy to adopt an African child.

Some African countries have lax adoption rules, and prospective parents can whisk their adoptive child away without so much as a background check. In Kenya, however, strict laws and layers of bureaucracy make the process cumbersome but ensure that the children do not end up with child traffickers or worse.

“Protection of the child is paramount,” said Judy Ndungu, an assistant director in the department of children’s services and the government point person on adoption.

“All the steps are necessary to make sure that by the time the child leaves the country, they are going to a good family to be taken care of.”

In countries with loose standards, adoption can be used as a conduit for child trafficking, an illegal business where by children are bought and sold, oftentimes into hard labour or the sex trade.

“Trafficking is a problem in this part of Africa,” Ms Ndungu said. “Our system takes measures to prevent trafficking. If you have watertight provisions, adoption cannot be a conduit for traffickers.”

About 200 children are legally adopted in Kenya each year, although most are adopted into Kenyan families. International families adopt about 50 Kenyan children per year.

The rigorous process discourages some, but ensures only the most committed families leave the country with children.

An adoptive couple must live in Kenya throughout the whole process. In the Ekhems’ case, the family rented an apartment in a quiet residential neighbourhood in Nairobi and enrolled their daughter in a local Swedish school.

Mr Ekhem, a researcher for a Swedish government agency, is able to work from abroad, while Mrs Ekhem took maternity leave from her job with a municipal agency.

After rounds of interviews and background checks, the prospective parents are allowed to take their future child home for a three-month trial period. Social workers from the adoption agency make monthly visits to gauge the family’s progress. After the trial period, the courts become involved in the three to nine-month legal process.

More visits from government social workers and a court-appointed guardian are have followed by a legal hearing. Finally, a judge grants the adoption order.

During this waiting period, the parents have a chance to bond with their child and get to know the child’s home country.

“They are able to live in the country where the child is from and experience the culture,” said Susan Otuoma, associate director of Little Angels Network, a Nairobi-based adoption agency.

“It sifts out a lot of couples that are not so serious. You must be able to emotionally and financially deal with being in another country.”

Most of the children up for adoption in Kenya have been abandoned because the mother cannot afford to take care of the child.

In some cases, women, who were raped, abandoned the children because of the negative stigma they carry. Some of the children’s parents died of Aids.

Many of the babies were left outside of hospitals. Some were found in rubbish heaps, in pit latrines and in coffee fields. The abandoned children end up in orphanages like the New Life Home Trust, which has seven children’s homes in Kenya, including a large one in Nairobi.

Mary and Clive Beckenham, the British founders of the orphanage, have placed more than 700 children with adoptive parents since 1994.

“We, as a home, are committed to adoption. We think it’s best for the child. It also helps people that can’t have a child get one,” Mr Beckenham said.

On a recent sunny day, a dozen toddlers splashed in a miniature swimming pool at the New Life Home while five volunteers supervised them. In the nursery, three newborns slept. One, a five-day-old girl, weighed two kilograms with arms nearly as skinny as a pencil.

“Babies are a forgotten group,” Mrs Beckenham said. “I want to get them when they are born so they aren’t left somewhere to die.”

Almost 300 babies admitted to the New Life orphanage had mothers with Aids and tested positive for HIV because they were carrying their mothers’ antibodies. Of those, 70 per cent never developed Aids and eventually became HIV negative.

Ambros is strong and healthy. Although he came into the world without much hope, soon he will be with a loving family thanks to a Kenyan system that cares for children from the orphanage to the adoption agency to the adoptive family.

The Ekhems hope to take Ambros back to Sweden by June, in time for his third birthday. Until then, they are patiently waiting for the legal process to take its course.

“It’s a brilliant system,” Mrs Ekhem said. “We really bonded with him in the first three months and he became secure with us. The only thing is, ‘when will we be able to go home?’”


2009 Mar 20