Monday, March 23, 2009

If It Doesn't Work Here, Let's Try It In Africa!

Friends of ours from Canada recently spent a few weeks working at an orphanage near Ouagadougou, and thought they’d drop by to spend a few days with us too since they were already in the neighbourhood. To our great surprise, they actually had some questions about what they saw and did, and we ended up having some interesting discussions together.

In our experience, most people don’t ask questions about stuff like this. Trips for short-term teams to go and work at orphanages in Africa appear to be becoming increasingly popular, especially for church groups from North America. Toting duffel bags full of clothes, school supplies, toys, tools, and construction materials, these groups arrive ready to help build facilities and entertain the kids. Because it involves children, most people just assume this is a worthwhile cause and do what they can to help. Very few do any critical thinking and ask questions, especially the bigger questions, about what`s really going on.

Think about this for a moment: Do we have any orphanages in North America? I can’t speak for the USA, but I can’t think of any in Canada, and neither can anyone to whom I’ve posed the question. We used to have orphanages, but not anymore. Why not? Because we’ve discovered that they don’t work. Children, even orphans, do best when they are raised in families. So that’s what we do now, arrange to put orphans in families asap, even if it means placing then in a temporary one or two before they can find a permanent adoptive family.

So why are we helping to set up and fund orphanages here in Africa? What makes us think that they’ll work here any better than they did in Canada?

In addition, many of the westerners helping to fund and/or build orphanages haven’t done their cultural homework. They don’t realize that children in Africa are not just the responsibility of the nuclear family as they are in the West. Here, unlike in North America, there is usually (except perhaps in areas of genocide) a large extended family that is ready to take care of children that have lost their parents.

So who are these orphanages really for? Well, there are a few legitimate orphans, children who have lost both parents. However, many still have at least one parent, and not a few actually still have both parents living. So what are they doing at the orphanage? Getting free food, clothing, housing, and education. Why should their families, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet, pay for these things when someone else is willing to do it for them?

Furthermore, villagers are sometimes even encouraged to send their children to an orphanage. For a few enterprising Burkinabès, an orphanage is a guaranteed income-generating project. The children are a great way for those running the orphanages to get access to generous foreign donors and their funds. The more children they can get to come to the orphanage, the more funding and help they`re likely to get from overseas donors. Care for the children is not their prime motivating factor. Access to funds and the possibility of the good life is. But I don`t necessarily have a problem with that. How many of us would be doing what we did if we didn`t get paid for it? Finances can be a wonderful motivating factor! :)

No, my problem is not with the motivation of those running the orphanages. It’s with the whole concept of orphanages. Where are these children going to learn their cultural values and norms? Where are they going to learn about family life and parenting for when they grow up? Certainly not in a dorm with 200 other kids! Orphanages didn’t work in Canada and they won’t work here either. I’ve yet to hear of any effort to place any of the children in these orphanages with adoptive families. After all, who in their right mind would send away the geese that lay the golden eggs!

Interestingly, there is one mission organization we’re aware of that hasn’t gotten on the orphanage bandwagon. In fact, they refuse to provide any help or funding for orphanages, saying that this is not an indigenous African way of dealing with orphans. The extended family is, and this mission is committed to helping those families look after the orphans that come into their care. It’s more complicated to do it this way, and there’s significantly less opportunity for short-term teams to come and help than in building artificial enclaves for large groups of children together in one place. But personally, for the children’s sake, I think they`re on the right track.

No comments: