Monday, November 5, 2007

The case of the missing Darfur refugees

I swear I had a lot of interesting and incisive things to say about the strange and sad story of L’Arche de Zoé and its attempts to provide safe white homes, er, medical treatment to more than a hundred orphans, er, children from Darfur, er, Chad.

You get my point.

At this moment, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy has met with his Chadian counterpart Idriss Deby and secured the release of three French journalists and four Spanish flight attendants. Three members of the flight crew, four Chadians and an elderly Belgian pilot remain in custody. As do all six members of the group L’Arche de Zoé, who will most likely will be charged with extortion and kidnapping. According to the Guardian, if convicted, they could face long sentences of forced labor. (IRIN points out that Chad does not have a law against child trafficking, which may complicate the case.)

It’s been more than a week since the story broke. Journalists are now on hand and just starting to piece together the interweaving narratives behind L’Arche de Zoé and the case of the missing Darfur refugees.

Here is what I can piece together. Members of the French NGO L’Arche de Zoé told approximately 50 French and Belgium families that the NGO was working on a humanitarian mission to save children from the ravages of the war in Darfur. The Belgian and French families were going to house the children and apparently ponied up good cash for that right. However, the families first told investigators that L’Arche de Zoé had brought the kids merely for medical treatment. The kids were just going to stay with them while they received that treatment.

UNICEF claims the kids weren’t sick and the group pointed out they weren’t orphans, either.

Finally, members of the French NGO informed the children’s parents the group would be providing schooling for their children at a project site somewhere else in Chad. The parents claimed they had no knowledge their children would be flown out of the country into presumably nice homes in what I picture to be a cozy existence in suburban France and Belgium.

The French government claimed no part in the case, although in August the French Foreign Ministry released a warning on L’Arche de Zoé, claiming there was no guarantee the children were orphans.

The humanitarianist manifesto
What we have is an overzealous NGO whose officers gravely overstepped their authority (and common sense) and decided to rescue these orphans from the ravages of war – even though it appears these children (who weren’t orphans) didn’t face the ravages of war. It appears that war, these days, can be tricky. So can humanitarianism.

One could be snarky and point out the case provides a perfect example of how westerners view Africa and its problems: Totally unsolvable without the intervention of well intentioned people just like me. They say it’s this savior attitude that lands a lot of people in trouble with the Nigerian 411 email scams. (But it also may be their gift at spinning juicy tales.)

Truth be told, I began worrying about the “adoption as development” scenario when hearing of the cases of Angelina Jolie and Madonna spiriting young children out of African countries and into their well stocked homes. I remember reading on a sports blog that adopting children from low-income countries is not only good for your family in a growing and loving sense, but it takes away a child from the harsh realities of poverty. (Don’t ask me what this had to do with on-base percentage, but I submit this as evidence that “rescues” like this is a commonly held idea.)

Instead of lecturing the blog writer, I’ll leave that to the friendly types at the Catholic Reporter:

The challenge of constructing coherent, balanced and sustainable development practices for Africa cannot be met by random involvement by Westerners, whether they are celebrities, high-profile politicians or ordinary people. Such approaches are attempts to respond to crises that result from the failure by Africans and the international community to evolve long-term development policy and programs. These interventionist approaches address symptoms while ignoring root causes.


The thing about Africans is they know perfectly well when they are being screwed – and when they are being taken advantage of. (It’s rarely the same thing.) And the baby adoption racket is an example of being taken advantage of.

Today, it’s still difficult to adopt babies in most African countries. One of the reasons, I surmise, is that governments would like to cut down on the number of babies being what they term “sold” on the international market. White people will stop at nothing from taking what they think is rightfully theirs, the thinking most likely goes, and protecting naïve families from themselves (and the cash of white folks) is the job of a caring government. (Now, if we could just get them to make those damn horse races illegal.)

In Muslim countries (like Chad), adoption to westerners is not even considered. In fact, in Islam, adoption in general is mostly looked down upon. According to S. Abdullah Tariq, here’s why:

Adoption of a child neither changes his blood group, nor his genes and DNA. It means nature does not allow the change of parentage of a person and Islam is the Religion of Nature...

Today we can trace the lineage of a person to particular family even after an interval of centuries on the basis of DNA test. An adopted child can only be traced to his true ancestry and not to the artificial progenitors. Nature rejects the false relationships while retaining in its record the true blood relationships...

The immediate damage of an adoption could be felt by the rightful owners of the inheritance, causing enmity in the family. The adopted child is prohibited from marrying some of those whom he has a right to marry. With the development of anthropology, today more than at any time in the past, we are families and races. Adoption is a false linkage in this process.

Yet, he points out that in Islam, the system of adoption can be justified – for two basic reasons:

An adopted child fills the vacuum in the life of a couple and an unprotected orphan receives the love and protection of his new parents. As far as childless couples are concerned, Islam does not stop them from acquiring an unprotected child and providing him with material and emotional support. But the fact remains that neither 'Nature' nor 'The Religion of Nature' i.e. Islam will accept the adopted child as their true descendant.

But let’s get back to the getting screwed/being taking advantage of dichotomy. As the Dark Angel of West Africa, Lydia Polgreen, put it:

The current episode has a particular sting because Europe has been writing increasingly stringent rules to keep Africans from migrating there, culminating most recently in a new French law that in some cases requires DNA testing to get visas for family members. Taking a planeload of children away in secret while thousands of Africans drown in the Atlantic seeking to migrate to Spain strikes many Africans as hypocritical.

File that under Africans understanding when they are getting screwed.

Take two
All I have to humbly add is that in Africa the definition of orphan is different. From countries I know and claim to understand, children who lose either parent is considered an orphan. This also applies to young adults. For women who die in childbirth, the infant is usually placed in an orphanage for up to a year until the father can take care of the baby. For older children, relatives may be asked to help…but they are often also given time to prepare.

What is so foreign about these traditions is that family bonds appear to be much stronger in Africa. And families are much larger. Most of Africa’s population is predominately rural. Because families in rural areas often live together in the same courtyard, aunts and female cousins can easily step in and care for children if mom is busy.

On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for teenagers (and younger) to leave home for schooling or to find work in a city. In most cases, family bonds still remain strong with these émigrés, but I surely can’t speak for every person in every situation. People will undoubtedly bring up the ravages of AIDS unraveling families or the global flotsam of workers with no possibility of returning home, but most people are tightly bound to their families through occasional trips home, functions like weddings and remittances.

Let’s make a deal
Of course, this doesn’t answer anything about the case of the orphans of Darfur. These kids, mostly between three- and five-years old, were much too young to leave home, it seems; even for free schooling. Who knows what sort of negotiations between the families and the French NGO really went on in those courtyards?

What about the NGO workers? I’ll go back to the point with the email scams. You can’t get caught in the web of so-called Nigerian 411 scammers unless you believe you can help some African out of a jam. Oh, and if you’re greedy. But where is the line drawn between altruism and avarice?

So where does this put us with Africa? Well, not everyone would invite a Darfur refugee into their homes. And few people would try to fly refugees out of Chad. But none of us has any problems getting misty eyed over the poor, sorry continent. Nor do Western NGOs have any shame in pimping this guilt.

I have a suggestion. Next time you’re down about the state of Africa, please think about my uncle, who works as an accounts manager of Abbey National PLC, and has an irresistible business proposition:

On December 12th, 2001, a German contractor with the British Pertroleum co-orporation, United Kingdom ,Mr. Olaf Partetzke made a numbered time (Fixed) Deposit for twelve calendar months, valued at US$ 17,350,000.00 (Seventeen Million Three Hundred Hundred and fifty Thousand Dollars only) in my branch.

Upon maturity, I sent a routine notification to his forwarding address but got no reply. After a month, we sent a reminder and finally we discovered from his contract employers, the British Pertroleum co-orporation that Mr.Olaf Partetzke died from an Automobile accident further investigation,

I found out that he died without making a WILL, and all attempts to trace his next of kin was fruitless.

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