Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Adoption, Orphanages, and the African Extended Family System

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you...’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son...” (Genesis 12:1-5).

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.

[Paragraph added later, due to a comment below, in order to illuminate by contrast what I've just said above] My father’s sisters are not my mothers, they are my aunts, and my mother’s brothers are not my fathers, but my uncles. Similarly, their children are not my brothers and sisters, they are my cousins. And when we come to the next generation, their children are not my children, but my nephews and nieces. They stand in a different relationship with me compared to the grandchildren of my father’s brothers and my mother’s sisters. Unless you understand it that way, you have not begun to understand the African extended family system.

Let us try a little mathematics. If my late dad had three brothers and my late mom had three sisters, and all of these are married and alive, then I have six fathers and six mothers still alive and well on the planet.

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. Hence, there is the often-told joke of an employee who gets leave from work to attend the funeral of his father and then asks for permission some six months later to attend yet another funeral of his father. The Western employer gets furious and says, “How dare you think you can cheat me. It was only six months ago when I gave you permission to go and bury your father. Do you think that I have already forgotten that? How many fathers have you got?” Well, of course, the employer is shocked out of his socks when the man actually begins to count them.

Let me go one step further. The extended family grows even bigger when one begins to count the number of siblings. Let us suppose that my dad and mom have three children, and each of my dad’s three brothers has three children and each of my mom’s sisters has three children (I am keeping to “three” to make the mathematics simpler). Then I have twenty brothers and sisters! If I were to take it even further and bring it to the level of the children of my siblings, then the mathematics spins out of control. It grows exponentially. If I had three children and each of my “brothers” and “sisters” had three children, then apart from my own biological children, I have another sixty children. Yes, sixty!

Okay that is enough about numbers and mathematics. Let us move on to the implications of all this. To us as Africans, this is more than just a change of words. It is not cut and paste. It is real. Although my biological children have a special place in my heart and home, these sixty children really have a sense of belonging to me. They feel they have a stake in my home. After all, I am their father and my wife is their mother. This is especially the case when their backs are against the wall—either due to poverty in the immediate family or due to the loss of a parent in death. I once introduced the daughter of my mother’s sister as a cousin to a friend of mine and almost paid for it dearly afterwards. She felt that I was disowning her or, at best, distancing myself from her—and she let me know it in the strongest terms. I tried to explain to her that the individual I was introducing her to was a close family friend and he knew very well that I only had two biological sisters. Her response was, “But he is an African. He should know you have more sisters than that.” And she was right.

The best way for a Western mind to understand this “sense of belonging” is by drawing a parallel between the state system and the extended family system. The state taxes the rich in order—among other things—to take care of the poor. The richer you are the more tax you pay. Thus an American who does not have a job EXPECTS the state to start putting money into his account to sustain him. They call it welfare. The aim is that, by the rich helping the poor, none of its citizens will be too poor to survive. Now, you have to remember that the state system is a very recent phenomenon in Africa. We are still struggling to come to terms with it. We lived in families—the nuclear, the extended, the clan, the tribe, etc. So, in the extended family, the wealthier nuclear families share their wealth with the poorer nuclear families, just the way in which in the state system the richer are taxed to support the poorer. Again, the aim is to ensure that those who are poor are not too poor to survive. They have richer “fathers” and “mothers” to turn to when their backs are against the wall.

This explains why our middle and higher income families are hardly ever nuclear families. In my church, there is hardly a home where you have parents with only their biological children. Partly due to the AIDS scourge many of us have lost siblings and so have taken in their children. After all, we are their fathers and their mothers. Apart from those who are in our homes, we are also supporting many others with school and college fees while they are living in lower income homes. In this way, the rich do not have too much and the poor do not have too little. A friend of mine once told me of a time when he worked as a CEO of a bank and a friend from the USA visited him. When the children started coming out of their bedrooms to greet the visitor, they just kept on coming. He had about twenty-four of them in his home on that occasion. (To manage all of them, he had put most of them in boarding school. However his visitor came when it was school holidays). When his visitor was told what I have just explained above, he called everyone back and took a picture of the “family” with twenty four children. He then went back to the USA and started supporting some of these “orphans” by paying for their school fees. By the time I was being told this story, most of them had finished school and college and were now supporting their younger siblings. He was grateful to his friend.

My mother died when I was nine years old. A year later, her immediate elder sister came and got my two sisters and me, and educated us until we went to university. We found eight siblings in that home and so, together, we were now eleven. At least we were in a home with “father” and “mother”. During school holidays, they would send us to visit our other “fathers” and “mothers”. We later learnt that some of them helped with our school fees. By the time we returned to dad’s home, during our university days, we were aware that we had many “fathers”, “mothers”, “brothers”, and “sisters”. We had been taken care of during the turbulent early teenage years in a way that a single parent would have never managed. So, I am a product of the African extended family system and I am now a benefactor of that system. There are accountants, engineers, hoteliers, lawyers, mechanics, etc, who have graduated from our home and from our domestic coffers. My greatest joy, however, has been to see some of these converted to Christ while in our home—and now living to God’s glory!

Our household has often been larger than this!
In my pastorate, I have baptised many individuals who have been brought up in this way in the homes of our church members. So, this story can be repeated over and over again in our church and across Africa. Like Abram, we have raised many Lots in our homes until they could live on their own. I recall a Western friend who came to challenge me about the problem of street kids in Lusaka. Looking at my largely middle class congregation, he urged me, saying, “If you could only urge each home to take in one street kid, you could sort out this problem once and for all!” My answer was swift and crisp, “We’ve already taken street kids off the streets. They make up half our households!”

The problem with coming to Africa and adopting one “orphan” from the extended family system is that your help is limited to one person only and not the rest of his family. The child changes his name and his family, and grows up in a context of the state system. His sense of connection with the wider family is lost and so even if he was to come and visit later in life, as was the case with Obama on his last famous visit to Kenya, his mind is already moulded by the state system and the extended family system is very foreign to him. When the many children of his poorer “siblings” (in the African extended family sense, which is exponentially higher than the Western concept) come to him to ask for help, he feels as if these Africans really love to beg. It reminds him of the many lazy drunkards back home in the USA who do nothing but wait for the cheque from the state each week or month. What he fails to realize is that in the extended family system we know one another. Hence, such exploitation hardly lasts. You give a guy a chance to better himself by helping him to get on his feet. Once it becomes clear he is just a lazy glutton wanting free food, you show him the door. Of course, human beings are fallen creatures everywhere and so they will exploit any of God’s gifts to mankind out of his most gracious common grace. The African extended family system is no exception.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not against adoption and orphanages, per se. My church ministers to two orphanages (they hate to be called orphanages) and is helping to start one, I sit on the board of one of them, and I regularly minister to a couple running yet another one. They have many advantages. For instance, a child that is adopted by a Christian family out of a non-Christian context is going to be loved and exposed to the gospel. Also, when a church-run orphanage takes a child from the streets and raises that child, there will be a similar exposure to the gospel. This exposure has led many who would otherwise have never been regularly and lovingly exposed to the gospel to see it in action. Due to this, many have been converted to Christ and, hence, live God-centred lives. Can anything be better that the salvation of a person’s soul? It is worth all the trouble in the world!

So, I think there is a place for both adoption and orphanages. However, knowing the extended family system suggests A DIFFERENT EMPHASIS in caring for African orphans. My Western friends should consider empowering homes where younger or older “fathers” and younger or older “mothers” are looking after children of their deceased siblings as a viable way to care for orphans. It may be totally foreign to the Western mind, but it is the most natural way for us as Africans to look after orphans. It is not either-or but both-and. (Hence, the title of this blog is not “Adoption, orphanages OR the African Extended Family system”). So, if you are able to adopt an African child, by all means do so. For that child, it is a dream come true—from the squalor to the States! But, while adoptions continue to grow exponentially in number and orphanages are opening up with support from the West, what are you doing to support what is more natural to us? One way of empowering such homes would be to help with scholarships that would enable these children to go to good (Christian) schools, colleges and universities (like the African Christian University), while being brought up in the context of the extended family system. That way, instead of only one child benefitting as he is adopted and taken away by a foreign family, his siblings—in the extended family sense—will also benefit from his education and new found Christian faith since he is still among them. So, without declaring a moratorium on adoptions and orphanages, supporting the extended family system in Africa should be emphasised more and will make the dollar go much, much further.

And, by the way, it is through the extended family system that we look after our aging parents too. We never send them to old people’s homes. In that sense, I am sure we are closer to Bible times. Paul urged Timothy, saying, “Honour widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God... But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever... If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are really widows” (1 Timothy 5:3-4,8,16).


  1. "And, by the way, it is through the extended family system that we look after our aging parents too. We never send them to old people’s homes. In that sense, I am sure we are closer to Bible times."

    I think, in general, this is right. However, in some cases where the elderly require a high level of care, it may be sensible to make use of a good Christian residential / nursing home where it is available.

    The other aspect of the welfare state is the control is gives to the state, which it often uses to impose a non-Christian agenda, e.g. here, or here.

  2. Thanks, Ben. I always appreciate appreciate your input. It helps me to see "the other side" of the coin. Thanks again!

  3. Thanks for the insightful article. Truly helpful to give me perspective outside of my own limited experience. We have adopted a child (from the states) and are praying about adopting again so this was a very interesting read for me.

    God bless you.


  4. This is a challenging reminder, thanks. The extended family has been hit hard over the past 10 years. From retrenchments, economic hardships and high cost of living this family was the first to suffer. But what I think it has done is to expose the individualism in us.This has subsequently denied Christian families the opportunities to impact the extended family with the gospel.

    You will often hear parents complaining that these members of the extended family are of a negative influence their families. I totally understand this. But on the other hand I think that one of the root problems is our weak so called "Christian" families.
    When by God's grace these are strengthened then they will be able to not only, as Piper says, alleviate physical suffering but also eternal suffering.

    May the Lord help us to take this opportunities. So that when our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children come to stay with us they will be challenged not only by our walk with Christ but also as we proclaim His name.

  5. Conrad, very insightful for the Westerner.. It was great to have lunch with you a couple of weeks ago in Springfield, Mo. I love how you pointed out that both "adoption" and the "extended family" are critical. Hopefully the work we are beginning in the Copperbelt will emphasize both. I look forward to visiting with you the next time i come to Lusaka. God bless your ministry.
    --Martin Winslow

  6. Thanks Pastor for your article - it has touched me. This is not just for westerners but is also very applicable in some aspects to us Africans who live in the west and sometimes despair due to the pressure to provide monetary resources to our other children, nephews, nieces, back home particularly for school requirements. It is easy to lose the perspective that our brothers, sisters etc physically sacrifice by taking these children into their homes and provide for their daily needs. Thank God for the generally favourable exchange rate; what is relatively less in the west, goes that much further when converted to the currency back home (The Lord himself adds the increase). We should not grow weary to do our part as God blesses is a joy to see these children go through school, college, university and stand on their own and hopefully lighten some else's burden in the family. If through this the Lord grants that some become christians, greater is the rejoicing.
    “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matt25:40. Thanks once again Pastor. Elliot

  7. Thanks, Conrad. I keep learning from the insights here. I pray that my mind will be open to truth and not encumbered by pride. It was truly humbling to hear you discuss the plight of the orphan and the family in Sub-Saharan Africa. I pray for your church and the people that comprise it.

  8. Excellent article Conrad, and very informative and helpful.

  9. Conrad, Thanks for such a helpful article. It will be important to us, I'm sure, as we seek to develop a culture of care for widows and orphans as presecribed in the Bible. You've done us a favor in explaining the African context. Jim Elliff

  10. >>The problem with coming to Africa and adopting one “orphan” from the extended family system...

    Dear brother,

    Is your family or the families of your church the norm in Africa? What you describe is a Christian extended family that works Biblically (which is to say, very well). But when it doesn't work well? When the children taken into the home of the extended family member are abused and raped day after day, year after year? When children in an extended family member's home are really street children? Surely the horror of African homes that pay lip service to our Lord (not to mention pagan and Muslim homes) must be acknowledged. And then we come to the orphanages of Africa (and around the world) where the children have no extended family member caring for them at all, and precious little loving care at all.

    These are the children my own children have cared for when they were in Africa. These are the children my children are now adopting, taking into their Covenant homes to raise in the Lord. What started it (so far, we have two African grandchildren, with a third on the way) was daughter Michal caring for children in a Zambian orphanage. She saw the needs of those children--they simply sat in their dirty cribs, day after day, with no one picking them up, hugging them, playing with them, or loving them, and those sad and hollow eyes--and she called her family members to adopt them as an act of obedience to the Lord. We thought she was right, so we've done so.

    You might think of us as your dead African neighbors' extended white American family.

    Once, in Rwanda, a wealthy Kenyan Anglican woman was condemning white Westerners for trying to steal her country's wealth by taking their children (she meant adopting their children). She was on the boards of several orphanages, so I described what I'd seen recently in an African orphanage. It wasn't good. Then I reminded her of our Lord's statements concerning the least of these, asking her how she could do anything but rejoice and give thanks to God for the believers in America who wanted to love and care for African orphans; and who did it, not to steal Africa's wealth, but to share their own and to raise up a godly seed? To her credit she said she would rethink things, and I hope she has. Certainly the African view of children as precious wealth is far closer to the teaching of God's Word than the American view of them as designer options, but her view of Christians adopting children as theft of her continent's wealth was a bit over the top.

    The problem isn't that African orphans adopted by American believers have lost their extended family members, but that their extended family members have white faces, now, instead of black. Yet those white faces belong to them more than the black faces they used to call their own because the white faces are their many fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, grandmothers and grandfathers in Christ. Water (the water of Baptism) should be thicker than blood (the blood of physical descent). As for American Christians supporting African fathers caring for African children, you’re quite right. Yet there's a limit to the ability of one man and his wife to love, personally. And then there’s the boarding school phenomenon that has bred sexual perversion at horrendous rates.

    All this to say I think the real need in both Africa and the Western world is for Christian families to model ourselves after the arms of Jesus. He never turned children away. Over the years, my wife and I have had a number of children live with us, and we hope to have a number more before we reach the quiet years. Send us some. We're your brothers in Christ, so we're your extended family--even more than your blood relatives--and we have time and love and food and shelter to care for the children of our brothers-in-Christ.

  11. Speaking of extended families, ours gathers once or twice a year for a family reunion we now number over 100. That's just my wife's parents and their direct descendants. And even here where AIDS has not decimated us, we take the children of our brothers and sisters into our homes. Maybe fewer than in Africa, but the Biblical way of doing family exists here in these United States. Also, our parents live with us in their old age. My Dad's sister lived in our home the last six years of her life when she could no longer care for herself. My wife and daughters nursed her. And my mother and my wife's mother, both in their nineties, just spent a week with us--my mother lives in my brother David's home now that she can't care for herself.

    Note the one time our Lord mentioned the Fifth Commandment, it was to call grown children to care for their aged parents.


  12. Dear Conrad,

    This is perceptive, timely and relevant to us.It is a worthwhile arcticle for internalisation and practice.

    God bless you.

    Wilson Tembo - Elder EBC

  13. Great post as usual, very Insightful. I never found it so clearly explained. It’s a pity that this cultural tradition is being eroded by the western influence

  14. Hi Tim,

    Reading your comments tells me that you did not understand what I was saying. You read it through your culturally tinted glasses and failed to see that “fathers”, “mothers,” etc, in the African extended family system is not the “fathers”, “mothers”, etc, gathered around a turkey during Thanksgiving! It is a welfare system, just like the state system—with obligations and penalties in the clan and tribe.

    Perhaps I needed to add a paragraph like this: “My father’s sisters are not my mothers, they are my aunts, and my mother’s brothers are not my fathers, but my uncles. Similarly, their children are not my brothers and sisters, they are my cousins. And when we come to the next generation, their children are not my children, but my nephews and nieces. They stand in a different relationship with me compared to the grandchildren of my father’s brothers and my mother’s sisters. Let me repeat. It is a support system, like the state welfare system.
    So, as I said, it is not simply cut and paste. Unless you understand it that way, you have not begun to understand the African extended family system.”

    What about the question of abuse which you allude to (e.g. children taken into the home of the extended family member only to be abused and raped day after day and year after year, children in an extended family member's home who are really still street children, the horror of African homes, etc)? The answer is precisely the same one that you give to those who abuse the state system. It is not by dismantling the system or bypassing it, but rather it is by punishing the offenders so that others may take warning. It is amazing how in the Bible the Christians were exhorted to submit to governing authorities when the ultimate governing authority at that time was a total despot (i.e. Emperor Nero). Human failure should not negate the systems God has given us in his common grace. Rather, those of us who are Christians must be salt and light in whichever context God places us. We African Christians need to be salt and light in our extended family welfare system, just as you, our Western brothers and sisters, are salt and light in the state welfare context.

    So, may I suggest that you reread my blog and try to understand my world by standing in my place. If anything sounds senseless, it is most likely because of where you are standing rather than where I am standing. In the meantime, remember, I am not saying that you or your daughter should not adopt or start a Christian orphanage here. I am saying, while you are doing that, please help us (your Christian brothers and sisters) to look after the orphans within our African extended family system. I want to assure you that it is more natural to us, and your dollars will go much, much further. We will impact them with the gospel and, because they are still here, they will grow up not only to help their “siblings” but also develop our nation instead of America. It is not either-or, but both-and. Thanks!

  15. I really appreciate and admire the African ways of extended family loving and caring just the same as a nuclear family.
    As a parent in the Western world of an African child, I agree that it is paramount that we recognize African values & tradition, as well as also finding ways to support it continuing.
    Thank you for this.

  16. >>So, may I suggest that you reread my blog and try to understand my world by standing in my place.

    Dear Brother, I already understood the points you thought I needed clarified, and yet, somehow, I can't get away from the impression you believe adoption to be second best. Also, speaking of cultural contexts, most Americans are scratching their heads at your understanding of the American welfare system.

    Love in Christ,

  17. Adoption is second best! Why take a child's motherland, language, culture, relatives away from them if they can be supported in a much better way without that loss?

  18. Hello Conrad,

    Thank you for opening my mind to truths that I was previously unaware of. I would like to ask: How do we move forward in helping our African brothers and sisters to look after the orphans within their African extended family system?

  19. Hello, thanks for posting your thoughts on this here. Can I repost segments on this for adoptive and preadoptive parents to consider on I think it would be helpful to them.

  20. Hi Kelly,

    By all means, feel free to use this blog to inform those who are thinking of adopting or even already adopting children, whether from Africa or elsewhere. I hope they will also find it helpful.


  21. Jamie,

    Generally speaking, our greatest challenge is not so much the feeding but the educating of the orphans in the wider family. There are a number of options. Let me suggest three:

    1. If you already have friends in Africa with whom you have developed a relationship of trust, you could help them with scholarship funds so that they can pay for the educational needs of the orphans in their extended family.

    2. If you are aware of a church in Africa that is above board in its financial dealings, you may want to partner with them in channeling scholarship funds to individuals who are presently stuck for lack of funds. For instance, our church has a number of teenagers and young adults who have finished high school but are presently doing nothing simply because their "fathers" and "mothers" cannot afford to pay for their college or university fees.

    3. If you know of a school, college or university in Africa that already has credible credentials. You could help them build their scholarship fund so that they can take in orphans who would not have been paid for by their "fathers" and "mothers" in the extended family system.

    I emphasise trust, above-board financial dealings and credibility because, due to our fallen human nature, there will always be individuals, churches and institutions who want to cash in on the plight of the poor.

    Whereas there are some situations that need food and clothing (and we must not overlook that), the goodness with prioritising education is that the individuals who are educated and still remain in our African extended family system will in turn educate their siblings once they finish their studies and start work.

    Again, this must not be done in competition with adoption or orphanages. It is a third alternative that I am concerned is getting little or no attention. Thanks for asking!


  22. Mr. Mbewe,

    My I have permission to link this blog post to the website of Our Family Adoptions--
    We are a non-profit humanitarian aid group that assists families with adoptions from DRC. We also do as much work as possible caring for children in DRC that are left behind in orphanages. Your blog post is an excellent explanation of a family structure that most Americans simply have no concept of, but that we need to better understand and respect. I think your post would be of real benefit to the readers of our website.

  23. Dear Carrie,

    You have my full permission to link this blog post to your website. I am glad that you have found it useful. As I have said, it is not either-or, but both-and. I can see that you are doing precisely that. Thanks!

  24. Thank you sir for your post explaining the extended family culture and how it contrasts to what we understand in the US.
    It is very different than what it seems on the surface and many Americans do not have a concept of the extended family because it has been long forgotten in our culture.
    Thank you for helping us to understand.

  25. What a wonderful post! Thanks for sharing this information, it is all new to me.

    I have to agree with Von, adoption, IS second best. The very best thing is for a child to be raised in the family they are born to, and beyond that to have the opportunity for connection with their biological family and heritage. Sometimes circumstances are such that these things just aren't possible. THEN adoption becomes a "best" option...but it was never the 1st best. I would invite anyone who doubts that to read about adoptee loss. : )

    I do know several African children who were adopted and now live in the US, and who are thriving in their new families. I love many of them dearly. They are happy and healthy, and having loving relationships with their parents and siblings. In so many ways, this has been good for them. None of that, however, negates the fact that they have also experienced profound loss and continue to deal with that in various ways.

    Again, I appreciate the information! I think it does have implications on how believers approach the Biblical mandate to care for those in need -- particularly widows and orphans. Your "both-and" approach makes a great deal of sense.

  26. Pastor Conrad,
    Thank you for your article. Being a Social Work student in South Africa, I am extremely grateful for the new perspective you've given me on the care of children in an African context.

  27. Pastor Conrad, thank you for this. The North American church has recently come under heavy fire for its "stance" on adoption. While our child is not African, he is adopted and so we follow what's happening around adoption and orphan care rather closely. One of the critical things needed is for families to honor birth culture even if it means slowing down, purposefully making connections and developing an extended network of support, and ensuring that children know who will care for them if something should happen to Papa and Mama. Most of this is counter to North American culture, and your article resonates with me because in many ways I mourn the loss of multi-generational living that we once had in the US. It's not the same as the extended family system, but it's much closer than the frenetic and losely connected lifestyle that we're passing on to our children today.

  28. Hi Pastor Conrad,

    Thank you for this post. It is very helpful. Do you have any organizations or churches you recommend contacting (if we do not currently have friends in Africa)?