Monday, December 7, 2009

An Exercise in Incongruity

ReedNews Update: Holiday Faux-Orphan Edition

We have certainly rounded the seasonal corner and are beginning to experience the Accra dry season. Or should I say the hot season, because unlike the rest of Ghana, in Accra it seems dry all the time. Although not as hot as it will get in March and April, it is already plenty hot enough. Back in Michigan, I remember complaining when it was still 75F by 10:00pm. Here, the coolest it gets all night outdoors is 80F, and in our bedroom, we haven't seen it below 85F in weeks. So, we start every day at around 85, and usually it reaches 95 by the time it begins to cycle back. The beloved breeze of the wet season is pretty much over by night when we need it most, but it blows nicely throughout the day. Bedtime is bearable with fans, but when the power goes out at night, there is just no sleeping. The humidity, while moderate most days, is nothing, and I mean nothing, like the palpable and stifling air of Monrovia-- and therein lies the saving grace of this place. As I like to say, "No matter how bad it gets, at least its not Monrovia."
The 1st semester of school for Hannah and Noah is just about over, and our two A students are looking forward to three weeks off. As a family, we'll travel a bit around, and have some neighbors over for dinner, while the kids-- especially the Hannah kid-- will have a pretty full social calendar. Both of them have developed a nice circle of friends, so we will be doing the teen transport thing a lot these three weeks.

We are getting ready for Christmas, although Christmas is even less visible in the Ghanaian culture than it was in Liberia. But we got our little fake tree up with stockings, and we play Christmas music all day long. We'll have more on this as we get closer to the Day.

Now, to a more serious item. As most of you know, Renita and I have an interest in the problem of orphanages throughout Africa, and how children are abused and exploited all over. Many are used as pawns for organizations to raise funds from ignorant but kind hearted Westerners. Now a report from Save the Children is out, shining an authoritative and international spotlight on orphanages in many developing countries. To begin with Save the Children states that 4 out of 5 "orphans" are not orphans at all, but have at least one parent available. In addition, the treatment of these "orphans" is often deplorable. The BBC reported that Save the Children found that West Africa and in particular Liberia was one of the worst offenders, with orphanages involved in fraud, child trafficking, and the abuse and neglect of children. Renita and I saw this from the first week we arrived in Liberia back in 2005, and worked to close orphanages and return kids home, while at the same time trying to find reputable facilities.
If you go to Google Images, and type in "African orphanage," you will discover what may be near the heart of the problem: hundreds of photos of white people-- virtually all white women--holding a black baby or child, most of them smiling much more broadly that the children. I constructed the collage on the right just from from the first four pages of my Google images search. There were 180,000 pages. Why would an "African orphanage" search produce so many of these images? (You may click on any of these small images to enlarge them.)

The Save the Children report identified North Americans as unwittingly contributing to the rapid growth of orphanages in recent years. In Liberia, while there is no evidence that the number of orphans have increased over the last decade, orphanages have multiplied ten-fold. Orphanages have become economic opportunities, ways of earning money from naive donors far away. The reasons parents release children to orphanages are complex and not necessarily in bad faith. Some honestly believe they cannot take care of their children and they trust orphanages to help them out. But many orphanages are not only unequipped to provide care, but they exploit the children in their facilities for economic gain. North Americans-- particularly white Christian women-- are so moved by the raw humanity of the children, they often neglect to look deeper, to engage what I call their "crap detectors." No one can fault the compassionate desire to touch and hold these kids or to provide funds for their support. But for so many, it really doesn't work out that way. After the touching, the holding, and the photos, Westerners return to their homes and the children return to hunger, squalor, disease, abuse, and worse. Reactively sustaining and sponsoring most orphanages as they exist today amounts to enabling one of the great humanitarian scams in history.

I guess by starting this blog off on a light note and ending with orphan abuse I'm being incongruous. I usually stick to a theme. But the truth is, the world is an incongruous place. We laugh and prepare for the holidays, and around us millions suffer in silence. We pour our time and money into orphanages, only to discover there weren't any orphans after all and we were scammed. We hold a child today, and tomorrow she is sold into slavery. I'm not trying to ruin anybody's holiday moment by talking about this. Really that is not my intent. It's just on my mind.
But on the other hand, if the only thing that comes out of reading about this stuff is that somebody gets knocked out of feeling all Christmasy, maybe it's the least I can do.
For a moment at least, the world will be more congruent.