Differences in cultural experience and perspective must be appreciated to properly to rightly understand the meaning of child abandonment in African society. For instance before the AIDS pandemic struck, there were few orphans in Zambia. Children belonged not only to the biological parents, but to their aunts “Ahmai,” meaning mother, and their uncles “Tata,” meaning father. Any adult who is a friend of the family is “Auntie,” or “Uncle.” With this large “extended family” surrounding every child, if the biological parents died, there are many other “parents” already intimately involved with the child who could naturally fill in the void. Even now, after AIDS has left thousands of Zambian children without parents, an estimated 80% of households have assimilated family orphans.
There are however two dominant forces pressing Zambian extended families to the breaking point – AIDS and poverty. These looming challenges, together with social stigma, hunger in households, and an increase in the number of child/female/grandmother headed households are pushing the situation to the breaking point. Many families are left without any form of housing or food security resulting in an increase in the numbers of malnourished children and a sharp increase in infant and child mortality.
Nevertheless, while the capacity of Zambian families is threatened, the heart is strong and capable. A group of village women – the poorest of the poor, were recently asked, “Who is responsible to care for the orphans in your village?” Without hesitation they answered with one voice: “We are. We who live are responsible.” The most vital response to the orphan crisis is found in the indefatigable hearts of men and women like these and our first line of intervention must be to support and strengthen families willing to care for their children.
Add up the number of children of your brothers and sisters. If you were a Zambian, culture would demand that you take responsibility for each one of these children as though they were your very own! True to their heritage, last month a Zambian aunt and uncle made a five-hour trip from the Copper belt to Lusaka to pick up their infant nieces. Unexpectedly and suddenly, their family had changed forever.
Born into a poor family, the twin girls were several weeks premature. They arrived suddenly and were underweight. With medical services very far from their village, their mother passed away soon after the delivery. The girls were brought to the Children’s Home where they spent several months gaining their strength in order to be able to be returned to their father. When the time came, he bravely took his baby daughters home, but in a few days he brought them back tearfully confessing, “I can’t do it. I must call on my brother.”
Zambian tradition dictates that the aunt and uncle of any child have the honor and the responsibility of being called “mother” and “father.” The aunt is responsible for sharing the “facts of life” with an adolescent girl and the uncle must approve before a girl can date or be given in marriage. If the mother and father die or are unable to care for their child, the aunt and uncle are required to care for the orphaned child(ren) as their very own — in essence an adoption. The twins’ father knew his brother and his brother’s wife would, without question, care for his daughters.
For orphaned children, the selfless devotion of Zambian culture takes the sting out of the death or the disability of parents. The importance of our Children’s Home in these situations is critical. Without this safety net and the tenacity of our social workers in finding families, innocent children could be easily abandoned and lost. Thank God for Tata and Ahmai