Everything You Thought You Knew about Orphans in Africa Is Probably Wrong
Policy makers, development workers, orphanage voluntourists, missionaries, prospective adoptive parents: ignore this book at your peril.
“AIDS orphans” are commonly imagined as the most vulnerable of the world’s most vulnerable populations. In a provocative new study, anthropologist Kristen Cheney challenges just about everything we thought we knew about the children of Africa who have been labeled “orphans.” Along the way, she decries what she terms the new “orphan industrial complex.”
Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (2017).
“Through her cautious, insightful, and moving ethnography based on fieldwork in Uganda, Cheney provides a deep understanding of the complex and unexpected forms of life that emerge around orphans. An important contribution to the growing field of critical children’s studies, Crying for our Elders is also a remarkable expression of ethically engaged anthropology.”
And in an early review, Rachael Bonawitz has written:
This abundantly researched work is essential to the study of international development and of orphanhood, as well as an enriching contribution to the field of children’s studies.
You can find a Table of Contents here.
Read excerpts online here.
The publisher offers complementary desk/exam copies to instructors here.
From the website of the Institute of Social Sciences/Erasmus University-Rotterdam (where she is Associate Professor of Children & Youth Studies), you can find Kristen Cheney’s institutional home page here.
At the recent conference of the American Anthropological Association (held in Washington, DC in December 2017), Kristen Cheney and I recorded a conversation about her new book. Here’s what Kristen had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; KC = Kristen Cheney):
AG: What gave you the idea to write this book?
KC: I had done fieldwork with children for my dissertation, which became my first book (Pillars of the Nation: Child Citizens and Ugandan National Development, University of Chicago Press, 2007). In the process, I came across a lot of kids who were orphaned. I was working at schools, so I’d often come to a primary school and have kids approach me—at least once a week—and give me letters, because they were too shy to talk to me directly about their situation. A lot of the letters described their circumstances and asked for assistance—primarily, educational sponsorship.
In one instance, a girl came up to me one Monday and said that she lived with her aunt and uncle, and over the weekend, her uncle—who was her blood relative—had died. Her aunt-by-marriage said, “You can continue to live here, but with him gone, I don’t know how long I can keep you in school, because I have to prioritize my own children.” So by Monday, the girl was already coming to school and saying, “I’ll find the mzungu”—white person or foreigner—“and ask them if they can help me.” That kind of thing happened fairly frequently.
So I decided the next book would look into how children experienced and understood orphanhood—as well as the broader purview of humanitarian responses to orphanhood, and how they either help or hurt those situations.
AG: That raises methodological issues. In the book, you talk about adapting participant action-style research methods with children. That’s a kind of research that’s become very popular in other disciplines, though we don’t call it by that name in anthropology. Can you talk about the difference that this research method makes to working with children in this kind of project?
KC: For what I term “youth participatory research,” the benefits were several. I wanted continuity with some of the kids I’d worked with before. My youth research assistants for this project were the young people who I’d worked with and had done life histories on for the first book. So there was some continuity, because part of the purview of the book was mapping generational experiences of the HIV/AIDS pandemic onto different developments in the fight against AIDS. These kids were born around the time of the “prevention of mother-to-child transmission” initiative, which meant that a lot of the kids who might have died from having gotten infected by HIV survived.
But their parents still often died when the kids were quite young. So they were one sub-generation, in their teens by that time. I wanted them to work with some of the younger kids who were 5-10 years old—kids of the post-ARV generation, for whom anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs had become much more available.
The post-ARV generation
Some of the teens had experienced these kinds of issues surrounding orphanhood themselves. Some of them weren’t full or double orphans—some had lost one parent, some had lost both, some hadn’t lost either parent but had still struggled a lot. So they were in a better position to work with the younger kids, by being closer in age, and having grown up in the same kind of society, facing the same kinds of issues.
A youth research assistant (right) works with his focus group, 2007
(photo by Kristen Cheney)
There was also a pragmatic element. Being based in the US at the time, I’d be in East Africa for a while, or for a summer, and then I’d have to leave. With this method, the youth research assistants could be visiting these kids with whom we’d matched them–visiting them in their homes or schools once a month, and talking about how it was going–and we’d get a broader sense of their lives, without me having to visit 40 different homes. We could cover more ground that way.
I don’t want to claim a representative sample, but we could get a broader picture of what kids were going through. That worked fairly well.
The down side is that this method takes you out of the field. You have to yield your expertise and your authority, and make space for that to happen.
You have to yield your expertise and your authority.
I became a bit of an administrator rather than a direct researcher. But when we had workshops together and compared notes and we asked, “What do we make of that?” it was much more participatory, and formulative of some of the broader arguments. We’d decide as a group, Where do we probe further, and where do we go deeper into certain kinds of issues?
The research itself becomes transformative. If you’re really interested in these issues, and you want to study it to help change something, and fulfill a sense of social justice, you start to see change within the community. The younger children saw the youth research assistants as older brothers and sisters. They became very close. The young children would tell the youth researchers things that they would not tell anyone in their own family, and voice some things they didn’t feel they could voice, especially about loss—saying, “No one’s telling me what’s going on. They think they’re protecting me, but I want to know.”
We really had to think about how we handled that relationship very carefully—think together, How do we counsel these kids? Because the youth research assistants became mentors to those kids. It was also transformative of relationships in the community.
I’ve done a lot of other youth participatory research projects since, and we’ve seen the same things happening. Right now, I’m doing a project to study adolescents’ understandings of healthy relationships, for the Oak Foundation. The work is supposed to help in the Foundation’s advocacy in preventing child abuse. We’re doing that project in Tanzania and Bulgaria.
Youth peer researchers in the Oak Foundation project on Adolescent Perceptions of Healthy Relationships, 2017 (photo by Kristen Cheney)
Now we have youth peer researchers who are as young as 10 years old! I had a conference call—what they call a “learning call”—with some of the Foundation team, and I was describing the progress of the project. They were already on board with the participatory method, so there was no having to convince them of its value, which was nice—because sometimes, you have to do a lot of convincing. They said, “We’re really anxious to hear how your results will help our advocacy.”
And I said, “We can talk about that—but I want to be clear that our approach is that research IS advocacy. We’re already seeing transformation in these kids, and the way that they talk about how, under the aegis of the research, they’re able to talk to adults across generational divides about things that they otherwise aren’t able to talk with them about. Those adults come to see them differently, because they become informed about certain ideas and start to possess certain knowledge such that people start to see them differently. It raises their status.
So we’ve already seen a lot of transformation happen—between the kids we’re working with and their peers, and also other interlocutors in the community.
So I said, “It’s not research then advocacy; research is, in itself, a kind of advocacy.”
And they said, “Oh, okay.” They hadn’t thought of that.
We have youth peer researchers who are as young as 10 years old!
AG: That raises another question. Can you talk about how you compensate the youth researchers—whether financially or in other ways? Because that’s a mode of doing research that may be unfamiliar to some anthropologists.
KC: Even working at ISS, a development studies institute, we work a lot on “capacity building” with non-academic development partners, and we’ve also talked with them about this.
We agreed that it doesn’t work well to do cash compensation with young kids. It creates a perverse incentive, in a way, and doesn’t lead to quality research. But there are other, non-cash incentives.
In the case of Crying for Our Elders, I helped the youth research assistants with school fees. But it wasn’t conditional. I said, “It would be great if you would help with this research,” but it wasn’t either a carrot or a stick. They were happy to help with it. I met with them before I published the book, a few years later, and had them reflect on the experience. It was interesting for them to talk about that. That issue of compensation came up, the ways that they gained skills—whether they were directly applicable in their professions as they got through school and went on, or just interpersonal skills. It was really rewarding to see. That’s the sort of incentive I wanted to create—I told them, “You’ll build your skills, and they’ll be marketable skills.”
When my colleagues and I were doing a project for Save the Children that also used youth participatory research methods a few years ago, we trained almost 100 peer researchers in Uganda and Ethiopia. None of them dropped out, unless their family moved. But none of them said, “I’m bored” or “I’m not earning anything” or “It’s not helping me.” They all stayed with the project for three years. The idea that kids will be flighty and just leave is not necessarily true.
We trained almost 100 peer researchers in Uganda and Ethiopia. None of them dropped out.
In our last workshop, we asked them to reflect on how they experienced the study. We had them draw pictures of their journeys within the research project. Some drew mountains, and some drew rivers with bends in them; there was always some sort of apex or obstacle to overcome.
One young man drew a bus and said, ”I feel like the bus is coming out of the woods and into the city.” Basically, he was talking about the process of participating in the research project as enlightening. Then he said, “The forest is illiteracy and the city is literacy.”
A youth peer researcher for a Save the Children project sharing his research journey, 2016
(photo by Kristen Cheney)
He also spoke really movingly about how the research group had become like a family to him by the end of the project.
AG: You had meetings for everyone?
KC: Yeah, we had workshops where we got together a lot. But they would also go out and do data collection in pairs, or they’d do interviews or focus groups together. And they had a lot of support at different levels. All of them said, “We feel like it’s a family now.” And they said, “We’ve learned how to talk to adults about things that had been taboo, or difficult to talk about—and even how to talk to adults, more generally.” For me, that was rewarding in itself.
Youth peer researchers (left and right) for a Save the Children project in Ethiopia engage with their supervisor (center), 2016 (photo by Kristen Cheney)
For that project, we’d also brought a lot of swag and bling from my institution (the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague)—backpacks, pens, trinkets that said ISS on them, and so on. Every time I came to a workshop, I’d always have a bag or hats or whatever. But the one thing that was really special to the kids was getting a certificate. Early on, they’d even asked, “Will we get a certificate for participating in the project?” Because certificates really mean a lot to them as they’re building a professional portfolio. Even if they were still figuring out what they wanted to do when they grew up, they knew they’d always have that certificate that said, “I participated in this project, and I did research.” They were more eager about that than they were about the other stuff we’d bring them. They thanked us for the backpacks, but when you gave them that certificate, they were so, so thrilled by it! It became a career-building sort of thing. That was the thing that was really important to them.
Youth peer researchers with their backpacks and certificates (Uganda, 2015)
(photo by Kristen Cheney)
I’ve also given certificates to some of the youth researchers who helped with Crying with Our Elders. When I met them years later, they said they’d saved their certificates. One of them even reached into his bag and pulled out his certificate that I’d give him almost ten years before. He’d had it laminated. Another one said, “Mine got wet and got destroyed, and I was going to ask you for another one.”
It’s not about, necessarily, financial incentives.
AG: In effect, the certificates, and what they represented, became a sort of intellectual capital.
KC: Yeah, it’s helping them see the long view of how the research project might help them with making connections with people, because we were working with local development organizations—ones that did the research and training. So it’s connecting them. They saw the value in the social connections and the skills building, and that was enough in a lot of cases.
AG: In choosing youth researchers, were you looking for students who seemed to have particular intellectual capacities? Or was it the opposite—those who seemed to need the most help? Or, something else?
Youth research assistant, Jill, reporting at a project workshop, 2008
KC: In Crying for Our Elders, I returned to work with kids I’d worked with earlier, when they were younger. Some of them were quite strong as students, but some of them weren’t. That could become a bit of a challenge in this project. For the workshop, some of them were keeping very detailed notes and journals. But one of them just didn’t like to write, and just wouldn’t do it—he refused to write. I would say, “If you go into the field and don’t write anything down, it’s like you didn’t do it.” That didn’t compel him to write anything down. But he was a talented musician who really liked to work with audio equipment. So I said, “You have your voice recorder. You’re turning it on to talk to the kids. Just keep it on and take notes—do verbal notes.” And he said, “Oh, okay, I can do that. I can just speak into the thing.”
AG: I do that often myself, when I’m driving away from an interview.
KC: Right. So you work with where they’re at. Others were very good about keeping notes. But that’s obviously not the only way to do it, and we sometimes tape fieldnotes ourselves.
I had another youth researcher who was really enamored of the video camera. I just said, “Take the video camera and run with it.” And he’d do that. He’d get all this nice footage of the kids and use it as documentary evidence.
In this more recent project, one of the examples I gave to the Oak Foundation of the advocacy issue is, when we had our first workshop after the kids were recruited in Tanzania, we had one kid who was no longer in school. She was a 14-year-old girl and seemed very shy, almost mortified by everything that was happening.
Sometimes we’d say, “Everyone think of three things and write them down and we’ll go around and share them.” And we’d come to her and sometimes she’d be physically hiding her face, as if she didn’t want to be called on. At first, we started wondering if she really wanted to be there. By the end of the day, it started to dawn on us that we were asking them to do a lot of reading and writing, and she couldn’t read or write. She’d gone to two years of school and dropped out.
My local project leader said, “I don’t know how she’s going to do the survey if she doesn’t know how to read or write.”
But I said, “No, let’s not push her out. There’s a reason she’s here.”
We discussed this with her, and she said, “Don’t make me leave. I’ll come tomorrow with a friend who can help me.”
I said, “She can reach people we can’t reach. So let’s not exclude her because she doesn’t have these skills. We can find other ways around this.”
And she was saying, “I can find other ways around this. I’m willing to improve in order to be involved.”
So I said to the local project leader, “Let her stay. She could be the most transformed by this project.”
The next day, she came with a friend and was much happier to participate. I think partly she had just been worried that the other school-going kids would tease her. When they didn’t do that, she settled down and stopped excluding herself and started to join in.
We have these “circles of support,” and we said to the supervisor in the closest circle, “Can you help her find an adult education class nearby?”
Three months later, when I checked in, the local leaders said, “She’s already vastly improved in her reading and writing, because she wants to participate in the project.”
So we’re already seeing that transformation happening.
AG: That’s awesome. You’ve talked about advocacy and social justice. You’ve mentioned that research itself can be a form of advocacy. Beyond that, can you talk about what would be your best-case scenario if policy wonks interested in the HIV and/or orphan crises in Africa were to read your book? What would you want them to do differently?
KC: What we’re seeing now is people acknowledging that the traditional family system in Africa has largely weathered the storm of HIV/AIDS orphanhood and taken those kids in. But what we’re also seeing is people picking up and running with this very broad definition that UNICEF has of orphans—that an “orphan” is any child who’s lost at least one parent. That’s become a justification for a lot of private donations, particularly, to orphanages (along with some public investment in them). We’re suddenly seeing a mushrooming of orphanages in Uganda and other places. This is what I’ve been talking about in lectures I’ve been doing recently—what I call an “orphan industrial complex” that’s come out of this desire to help orphans, and thinking that orphanages are the best way to do that—but they’re not. It also comes out of the growing popularity of what’s now called “voluntourism,” and working with children has particular purchase with people. They see orphans as the most vulnerable children, so people say they really want to work with orphans.
Proliferation of orphanages in Uganda since the height of the AIDS pandemic (bit.ly/orphanindustrialcomplex)
I’m really challenging that sort of “child rescue” discourse that’s actually jeopardizing children and breaking up families and causing unnecessary institutionalization, because they’re building orphanages and pulling kids into them.
In short, I would like to see an end to orphanages in my lifetime, and I think that’s quite possible to do. Instead, we’re seeing a real increase in orphanages, because people who think they’re helping are setting up new orphanages without realizing this broader picture.
“I would like to see an end to orphanages in my lifetime.”
First of all, from 60 years of child development research—which a lot of the donors to orphanages haven’t read— we know that orphanages are not good places for children to grow up in. A lot of this comes from faith-based communities. They’re talking about the Biblical command to “visit orphans and widows in their distress.” Somehow, the widow falls out of the picture very quickly, because there’s a much more emotional purchase in the orphan. A lot of these people don’t have backgrounds such that they would investigate this history or this research in the child development literature. “Child rights” isn’t in their vocabulary. “Child protection” isn’t in their vocabulary. So it can be very difficult to break through this idea of, “I’ve always wanted to go to Africa and start an orphanage.”
AG: Or maybe they perceive the “child rights” and “child protection” discourses in very different ways that make it look as if they’re actually doing everything they can and should do to help?
KC: Right. But it comes from a very different register—either this spiritual idea, or from “voluntourism” and service learning, on which there’s been a lot of good critical literature coming out stating that that sort of transformation is much harder than something you can accomplish while backpacking. The supporters of orphanages don’t often think through some of the issues I’m trying to raise. This is not about the supply of orphans, this is about the demand for experiences with orphans. We’re actually causing orphanhood, de facto.
“We’re actually causing orphanhood.”
Locally, what’s happening is—if you build an orphanage in a poor community, kids will come. But they’re not coming because they’re orphans—they’re coming because they don’t have access to schooling, and recruiters are going into the community to entice families to institutionalize their children in order to access education. That’s the #1 reason we’re seeing why families are being induced to put their kids in orphanages. To the local community, it’s often presented as free schooling!
AG: So, to the policy wonks, maybe your big take-away point would be, “Don’t build orphanages; build schools”?
KC: Yes, in some ways. The main goal should be: improve educational access. Don’t support orphanages. Don’t build them. Don’t visit them.
I’ve actually been working with a group called Hope and Homes for Children that’s doing de-institutionalization of orphans in a number of places. They’re helping the Rwandan government to close all their orphanages by 2020, and they’re ahead of schedule to do that. It doesn’t take a wealthy country to do this; it just requires political will.
By the way, we generally don’t have orphanages any more in North America and Europe. There’s a reason for that: we know family-based care is better. Why is it that we’ve decided orphanages are not appropriate in our home countries, yet we’re saying, “Let’s build them in Africa because there’s a lot of orphans there who need it”? First of all, that’s not true. A lot of people are even saying, “Let’s get rid of this word, ‘orphan,’ altogether.” It’s stigmatizing. Kids don’t want to be called that. And it’s often a misnomer. It’s not that a child without one parent has no family and needs to be in an orphanage. All the kids I worked with for this book—some 40 kids—lived with extended family in their community. So I didn’t really have any association with any child care institution until the end, when I heard there’s also these baby homes, so I thought maybe I should go visit them. That’s what got me down this rabbit hole: the cultural politics and political economy of orphanages on a broader, global scale.
“All the kids I worked with for this book—some 40 kids—lived with extended family in their community.”
AG: Really, the concept of “orphans” is Eurocentric insofar as it privileges two opposite-sex, biological parents. And, in effect, it implicitly claims that once you lose both of those, you’ve lost everything. In so-called “extended family” communities—which we see all over Africa—the concept of “orphanhood” in a sense is superfluous.
KC: Right. It doesn’t exist—not in that form.
AG: Because you’ve always got other people. In the local language, many of those other people are called “little mother” or “little father,” or “big mother” or “big father.”
KC: Right. Or they just don’t have a word that means “orphan.” They say, “Well, we might say enfunzi”—and they would whisper the word. Because they don’t want a kid to hear that.
AG: They know it’s stigmatizing.
KC: Yeah, they know the children would feel bad to be called that. Because it doesn’t mean the same thing that “orphan” does; it means you’ve not only lost your mother and father, but you’ve lost your “little mothers” and “little fathers”—your aunties and uncles, and your grandparents—and have basically been cast out and abandoned and have nobody. So it’s not the same concept.
At the same time, one of the things I noted is that, when you have humanitarian assistance coming, specifically, for orphans—essentially, targeting them—these same people who acknowledge, “I wouldn’t call a child an ‘orphan’ to his face, it would be insulting, and they’d feel very bad”—these same people will say, in English, “Here are my orphans.” And they’ll push forward “their orphans” and say the word in English and continue, ”I hear you have resources that might help me educate and feed these kids.”
An elderly guardian (right) with some of the children in her care, 2017
(photo by Kristen Cheney)
The unintended implication of targeting orphans in the humanitarian response is one of the things I discuss in the book. At first, they were targeting orphans, but then they would find quickly that the status of orphans would rise higher in an extended family when orphans were targeted by humanitarian agencies. But there’s also resentment in the family, because some kids might be going to school because sponsorship was available for “orphans” in the house. The biological children in the same household would say, “Mommy, Daddy, why can’t I go to school?” The parents would respond, “Because you’re not an orphan.”
It got to the point where someone from UNICEF told me, “We’d have an event where we’d distribute books and pens to orphans, and we’d hear other children saying, ‘I wish my parents were dead so I could get schoolbooks.’” The UNICEF staff thought, “What are we doing when we have kids saying, ‘If my parents were dead, I’d get to go to school’?”
Schoolchildren in Uganda, 2013 (photo by Kristen Cheney)
AG: It pays to be an orphan.
KC: Literally. Or in other instances, a child soldier. These sorts of targeting and labeling actually make people take on a role and can actually inscribe trauma where it didn’t exist. If you’re not traumatized, but you understand the Western assumption, “You must be traumatized by being an orphan, or a child soldier,” or what have you, you figure out that if that’s the way to entitlement, then you really need to adopt that role.
And it can end up that if you really adopt that role, you can actually internalize that trauma and become vulnerable.
AG: There are so many unintended consequences of labeling. And this label that you’re applying so provocatively, the “orphan industrial complex”—I guess, borrowing it from Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex,” and then the second-generation term of the “prison-industrial complex”—that’s a really powerful concept. I don’t think it’s yet been over-used, despite being adopted by folks critical of the prison system. Do you find that your version of the phrase arouses interest, or just offense?
KC: I’ve gotten good feedback. I’m talking to those who are potentially participating in “orphan tourism”—college students, even high school students, from the global North. So far, I’ve had pretty good reception to the term. It is provocative. But I do get people listening. The way I lay it out, they start to see the bigger picture of how it works. At first, they may come into it skeptically, saying, “What’s wrong with wanting to help?” It’s difficult to be the killjoy who says, “This is what’s wrong with helping in certain ways,” if those ways really are destructive. But I do say, “Here are things you can do that would be really helpful. For example, helping keep children in families, and lobbying governments not to send them to orphanages.”
As I was saying about Rwanda, and Hope and Homes for Children, we went to DFID—the Department for International Development in London, which is like their USAID. They handle all the development funds for the UK government. We talked to them about divesting from orphanages and other organizations that support the institutionalization of children. We were talking to them about this as experts.
And they were interested. Usually, these people flit in and out of meetings, but they stayed for a good hour-and-a-half. What really helped is that I had a former student who grew up in an orphanage in Kenya and talked about things they’d never thought about—including his loss of identity, as a child who grew up in an orphanage. He ended up in an orphanage because his mother died in an accident. The orphanage never made any effort to find his family. When he was older, he wanted to see his file and try to trace his family—but he found out the orphanage staff had changed his name. From the time he was four or five, he was called something else.
AG: So many layers of emotional theft. . .
KC: And he talked about how, when volunteers came to visit, they’d only pay attention and play with the cute, little ones. It caused resentment among the other kids. But once you’re not cute or little, you don’t get much attention from these volunteers. Sometimes the staff would hide away the other children and only parade the disabled children, because there was a donor who was particularly interested in helping disabled children.
“Once you’re not cute or little, you don’t get much attention from the . . . volunteers. “
AG: So it also pays to be disabled.
KC: There were all these ways they hadn’t thought about these issues. I think that really moved them to have someone talk about that personal experience, and how identity gets erased. Being labelled an “orphan” has these lifelong effects. Now he’s in his 30s, but he’s still saying, “This is the long-lasting effect of having gone through this.”
AG: I think your book is going to forge such a different conversation among so many kinds of people who I hope will read it.
KC: That’s what I’m hoping. And also by being provocative about the “orphan industrial complex”—which, drawing on the “military industrial complex,” which deals with the politics of fear—but this is the politics of hope and love—and this idea of the “need to help,” as Liisa Malkki talks about, and trying to unpack that idea and be self-critical about it, and show how that has unintended consequences. I do think people are listening to this message, and I hope they will change that discourse.