A Painful Struggle over Nigeria's Abandoned Children AIDS adds to an orphan crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet concerns from trafficking to cultural differences make it hard for outsiders to adopt. The story of two children in Nigeria illustrates the issue.
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A Painful Struggle over Nigeria's Abandoned Children

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A Painful Struggle over Nigeria's Abandoned Children

A Painful Struggle over Nigeria's Abandoned Children

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

NPR's Brenda Wilson has the story of two children caught in a cultural divide.

BRENDA WILSON: The Children of Mary Orphanages is just off the highway that cuts through Otukpo in Benue State, Nigeria, down a steep hill and up another rise. Beyond the bare grounds, trees and bushes take over. In the early morning hours, the electricity is not yet on, and no light comes through heavy curtains.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CHILD CRYING)

WILSON: Toddlers wander about tugging at the skirts of the aunties who work here. One child squats quietly just outside the doorway eating from a bowl of rice. Some mornings, it's fried potatoes, or tea and bread. Midday, perhaps, there will be pounded yams or ogbono, a soup made from boiled seeds. As if on cue, five-year-old Vivian has begun to sing for a visitor.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD SINGING)

WILSON: The Children of Mary Orphanage is run by Sister Rosemary Oganyi, who started taking care of children many years ago, after her husband and her own children died.

ROSEMARY OGANYI: I came here with 15 children from the village, and now there are 31. And last year, I sent ten off to the families.

WILSON: The orphanage is a bare bones operation dependent on donations and stipends from the state. It has been largely free of interference from the state, until a dispute over the custody of two children. They were among the first children taken in by the orphanage, and Sister Rosemary named them after her brother and sister, Eddy and Rebecca.

OGANYI: I give Eddy, Edwin, Emoga(ph) Oganyi, that's the name I give. It's my brother who die in the war. Rebecca is Rebecca Oganyi, my late senior sister.

WILSON: So you named them after your sister and brother.

OGANYI: Yes.

WILSON: But they're not your sister and brother's children.

OGANYI: No.

WILSON: She says they were given to her by the hospital to take care of after they were abandoned by their own families. Eddy had been found as an infant by the side of the road.

OGANYI: The boy is a skeleton.

EDWIN OGANYI: The orphanage was a very small place. It wasn't like, it wasn't nice, and it didn't have a swimming pool. And there were lots of friends there to play with. I didn't like the food.

WILSON: What did you eat?

OGANYI: Ogbono.

WILSON: Ogbono. And you didn't like the taste of it?

OGANYI: No.

WILSON: Did you go to school there?

OGANYI: No. And the orphanage, the orphanage itself, it had a farm, that if you go and walk on the farm, the leaves there use to stick you.

WILSON: The leaves stuck you.

OGANYI: Uh-huh. You look like you're bleeding from top to toe.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN LAUGHING)

WILSON: The child she describes meeting was already a sprite.

MAISHA STROZIER: It was actually Eddy who I remember most. He was such an engaging child, even then, very funny, had the other kids laughing, had me laughing. And at the time, he had a noticeable problem with his legs as well, what the call K-legs or X, which is a form of rickets. And he didn't walk until he was about two years old. And it looked as though his legs were continuing to grow together. But he didn't let it bother him.

WILSON: She visited the orphanage regularly and came to a much more personal decision.

STROZIER: You know, I had always thought about adopting. The time just never seemed right. I was always focused on one thing or another. After some discussion with Sister Rosemary about whether to adopt an infant or older children, we decided that Eddy and Rebecca were right. They're the right age. We seemed to get along very well. There was communication with the board of trustees of the orphanage, and we decided to go forward with it.

WILSON: It was a bold step to take when you consider that only two states in Nigeria allow non-Nigerians to adopt Nigerian children, and Benue State is not one of them.

STROZIER: I was strongly encouraged by Rosemary, by members of the community, by friends here, Nigerian friends.

WILSON: With the understanding, she says, that these legal obstacles could be overcome, she began adoption proceedings and brought the children to live with her. They were five years old.

STROZIER: And it actually went very well, with Eddy in particular. Rebecca was a little bit more reluctant. I think she just didn't trust that this was actually happening. Sister Rosemary told me that the night before they were supposed to join me, Rebecca insisted that it was going to be that night, not tomorrow, because people had told her previously that she was going to live with a new mommy, and then it didn't happen, and then she just started to have doubts. So they came to the house. We had dinner, and they stayed over. Rebecca didn't sleep that night. She just sat on the edge of the bed, and finally she fell asleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN LAUGHING)

REBECCA OGANYI: I'm not six years older than you.

WILSON: Six days or six years?

OGANYI: Six days.

WILSON: So he's, how old is he?

OGANYI: Eight.

WILSON: And how old are you?

OGANYI: Eight.

OGANYI: But she's not telling the truth because she is not one year older than me. She's not even one day older than me.

WILSON: It's Nigeria, but they already act like American children who live in an expatriate community. They attend international schools, have play dates with the children of the local chief justice, take horseback riding lessons, play tennis and go swimming at the ex-pats hangout around the Hilton Hotel pool, a world that after three years is tenuously theirs.

STROZIER: All right. Rebecca, Eddy, let's get the balls and then you can go swimming.

OGANYI: That's my mommy. When she swims, it's like this. And (unintelligible), we can pass her any time we want.

STROZIER: Once they came to live with me, one of the first things I did was to take Eddy to an orthopedic specialist, and their examination showed that he needed much better nutrition, to exercise, sunshine, all of the things that we all know are necessary for children to grow healthy. And after a couple of months, Eddy's legs were almost completely normal.

OGANYI: Mommy, it's my turn. Mommy, it's my turn. Mommy, you did Rebecca. It's me. Mommy, it's me. Mommy, me. Mommy...

(SOUNDBITE OF ORPHANAGE CLASSROOM)

WILSON: Strozier continued to take the children back to the orphanage for visits with Sister Rosemary. To them, Strozier became Mommy. Sister Rosemary was Mama.

OGANYA: We sit in my kitchen and cook and eat together. We all like this.

WILSON: But as the process of adoption got underway, Sister Rosemary began to pull back.

OGANYI: If (unintelligible) doesn't have a child, whatever you are to be, the Lord will make you to be. I believe in God. Being that the children is clever and everything, you can see, I will take care of those children as I want.

WILSON: In order to adopt the children, Strozier says that the board of trustees made it clear that she would have to work with the social welfare agency in Benue State.

STROZIER: And I think at that time that sort of signaled a sort of distancing in the mind of Sister Rosemary, that we had to seek permission for anything that we wanted from the state.

WILSON: This resulted in heightened oversight of the orphanage by the social welfare agency, and visits, to which Sister Rosemary objected. She balked. Her funding from the government was affected.

OGANYI: They cut me off and said that government, government are not the ones taking care of these children; I am the one taking care of the children.

WILSON: Strozier had counted on Sister Rosemary's support and testimony for the adoption and was not prepared for what happened when she and the children went to pick up Sister Rosemary for the hearing.

STROZIER: She had had a dream that the children should not be allowed to leave, and after some discussion, there were people who were assisting her in making sure that the children would not come out of the house, and there was Eddy screaming and kicking and Rebecca crying. It was a very frightening thing, as you can imagine.

OGANYI: Mama locked us in our room. She doesn't want us to go Mommy (unintelligible) Mama.

OGANYI: She only has one bed room in our room, and (unintelligible) ridiculous.

OGANYI: I couldn't sleep that day. That's day felt like the day I was born.

WILSON: A judge determined that the children would say with Strozier.

OGANYI: I love them more than (unintelligible) because I took them from infancy. I know about them, more than Maisha(ph). He cannot come to take my own child. He cannot go to anybody's house and pick their own children and say because he have money he can take more care of the children. No. I don't believe that.

WILSON: Sister Rosemary took another step, publicly opposing Strozier's adoption of the children. There were stories in the newspapers. The visits to Mama, Sister Rosemary, came to an end.

OGANYI: Yes, I knew they would be in a better place, it's true, okay? But why can't I have contact with the children? They couldn't talk to me? I went there, I wasn't received, in Maisha's house. I think they are going to sell my children, for them to transplant their hearts or kidneys. This is true. This is true. You cannot change my mind on that because of the way they treated me.

WILSON: On Sister Rosemary's side were real cases of child abduction and stories of parents selling children to become sex slaves or for labor. Joshua Sampson runs Ohema(ph), a local community group in Oktupo(ph), Benue State.

JOSHUA SAMPSON: There've been cases of some children from Nigeria taken to Benue Republic for child labor, and they were caught in the boundary. Okay. The children had to be repatriated.

WILSON: It was in this environment that Nigeria's general assembly took up the Child Protection Act and decided to tighten Nigeria's adoption laws.

SAMPSON: So this is a compounding issue which is now affecting a genuine case to support children who are in need. There are policy makers who may not even have seen an AIDS orphan. And so when you talk about putting legal instruments to support these children, it doesn't make sense to them.

WILSON: Professor Belanle Alway(ph), a cultural historian at Ibadan University, says that reflects what most Nigerians feel.

BELANLE ALWAY: Really and truly, our children should not be in a position where they should be adopted by other people. We should be able to care for them, even when they're disadvantaged here. We have the resources, and we should have the conscience enough to be able to do that.

WILSON: At stake for many Nigerians, Alway says, is cultural pride.

ALWAY: Once you take a child away from his environment, from his culture, he's completely (unintelligible) as they say. He will lose everything. He will lose his language. He will lose his literature, oral and written, and once he does that, you know, the values of his people, he's going to lose all that, and in a society where already people are asking do we have anything to fall back on, or are we just there by the grace of white civilization?

WILSON: The expectation in sub-Saharan societies is that family, close kin, people like Sister Rosemary Oganyi, will step in when people lose their parents. In some instances, Professor Alway says, the parents may still be alive.

ALWAY: You find that the children who are sometimes sent away like that are from homes where they cannot afford to give them what they need. For instance, they may not have the money to send them to school, so that child would have the benefit of going to school and having education, and a number of people have done it in the past.

WILSON: But the tradition is fraying because of AIDS and because of poverty. In some ways, Sister Rosemary Oganyi, a Nigerian, and Maisha Strozier, an African-American, almost achieved that, creating an extended family across a cultural divide. Even now, Sister Rosemary seems perplexed that that larger family, which included Maisha Strozier, has been lost.

OGANYI: Both of us are going to be the same family, friends. Okay?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's destiny here now.

OGANYI: The boy is going to be something, but to cut me off, not to know about them, it's very painful.

MAN: You'll be part of their life.

OGANYI: Maisha is very good.

MAN: Where did I get that impression? Where did I get that impression, get the wrong impression?

WILSON: Attempts to patch things up haven't worked. Maisha Strozier took off a year from her job, took a second mortgage on her home in the U.S. to try to complete the adoption, to no avail. She still just has temporary custody of the children and cannot obtain visas that will allow her to bring them to the U.S. She has found another assignment in Nigeria, but is in some respects in limbo, cut off from her family in the U.S., who have yet to meet the children.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

OGANYI: I'm so (unintelligible). The end.

STROZIER: Eddy, Rebecca and myself, we have a home here. We know each other. We love each other. Eddy, in particular, is just so proud to have a mommy like all the other children. I don't think it makes him feel special. I just think it makes him feel like everyone else, and that's the special part of it. It took so long for Rebecca to trust that this was real. I just want them to know, sorry, that I have done everything I can to make this happen, and if that means that I have to, in a very public way, document the effort so that they know, wherever they are, that I didn't just abandon them, I think that will make them healthier children, make it easier for them to move forward with their lives.

WILSON: Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

SIMON: You can hear stories of some of the children in Sister Rosemary's orphanage at our website, npr.org.

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