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Out of Ethiopia: Is international adoption an ethical business?

From BBC Africa - click here to read Comments (59)


International adoption is big business in Ethiopia and the country accounts for almost one in five international adoptions in the US, but how ethical is the process? BBC Africa's Hewete Haileselassie reports in this article which appeared in the latest issue of our Focus on Africa magazine.

Twenty-five years after leaving Ethiopia, Matthews Teshome decided to come home from the United States. This time for good.

He had left much behind in April 2007 - most notably a successful career in IT. But his reason was simple. "There is work to be done," he said at the time.

Soon after returning to the capital, Addis Ababa, he befriended a young boy he saw running errands and shining shoes around his hotel.

“As I was in the country to help out, if I couldn't help this boy then I wasn't doing much”

Matthews Teshome

Zeberga, who was then 13, used the little money he made to clothe and feed himself, pay his uncle rent, put himself through night school and send money back to his mother in rural Ethiopia.

"As I was in the country to help out, if I couldn't help this boy then I wasn't doing much," says Mr Matthews, who was determined that Zeberga should return to school full-time.

After promising to continue the monthly $3 (£2) remittance, he received permission from Zeberga's uncle and his mother to support Zeberga.

Within months the young boy had moved in with Mr Matthews, who employed a lawyer to facilitate the adoption process not only of Zeberga but also of his younger sister who was working as a maid in the capital.

Drawn to Ethiopia

Meanwhile, 8,000 miles (13,000 km) away, in the US, Bridget Shaughnessy gave birth to her daughter Elia. It was also April 2007.

Mrs Shaughnessy (centre) and Teshale at Addis Ababa's airport Photo: Lynsey Epp Peterson It took the Shaughnessy family three years to take Teshale to the United States.

In the final weeks of her pregnancy, Mrs Shaughnessy was diagnosed with a rare birth complication which meant that the baby had to be delivered early. Elia arrived safely but her birth was both traumatic and risky for Mrs Shaughnessy.

As she and her husband Luke watched Elia grow up in Denver, Colorado, they decided that adoption was the only way to complete their family.

They both felt drawn to Ethiopia, its culture and history, and so made contact with an agency specialising in international adoptions.

That was the beginning of a three-year process that ended in their bringing their son Teshale home from Ethiopia.

Back in Addis Ababa, Mr Matthews says the biggest obstacle he initially faced in the adoption process was being a single man with no biological children of his own.

But once the authorities were convinced of his motives and character, the process proved less difficult than he had anticipated.

While it is common in Ethiopia for families to incorporate children of relatives into their own households, formal and legal adoptions remain the preserve of foreigners.

Out of Ethiopia

  • An estimated five million orphans in Ethiopia
  • One out of five children adopted in the US are from Ethiopia*
  • Since 1999, 11,524 Ethiopian children have been adopted by American families*
  • Families in Spain, France and Italy also adopt several hundred Ethiopian children per year

* Source: US Department of State

Official Ethiopian data is hard to come by but Dagnachew Tesfaye, a lawyer who has handled many adoptions for the country's children and youth affairs office, estimates that there are around 5,000 international adoptions a year from Ethiopia.

Almost 19% of all children adopted from abroad and taken to the US come from Ethiopia, according to the US department of State - the most famous case being actress Angelina Jolie and her daughter Zahara.

It costs up to $25,000 to adopt a child to take abroad. In contrast, Mr Matthews says he paid roughly $300 for his own in-country adoption.

Mr Dagnachew, who has also presided as judge in many high profile international adoptions, says that while the fees are high - leading to accusations of impropriety in some cases - the government is in no way profiting.

US actor Angelina Jolie, holds daughter Zahara (2006) Angelina Jolie is probably the most famous person to adopt from Ethiopia

He adds that the amounts paid to the courts in processing fees, for example, were "laughably small", with the difference being taken by the agencies who handled the foreign adoptions.

Mr Dagnachew explains that the Ethiopian government sees international adoption as one of the measures used to tackle the country's large number of orphans - said to be five million, from a population of 85 million.

The United Nations defines an orphan as a child having one or more dead parents.

The Ethiopian ministry of women's affairs is also putting in place various checks to ensure that the adoptive families are thoroughly vetted. This can include visits to children in their new homes abroad.

'Amazing moment'

Mrs Shaughnessy, who blogs at, says that she was drawn to Ethiopia because of its "open" and "ethical" adoption process.

She also points out that children maintain access to information about their birth families.

Nigerians keep it in the family

By Chikodili Emelumado

Growing up in the heart of Igboland in Nigeria's Anambra state, adoption was not something one spoke about openly.

Igbo people wishing to marry and start a family must meet certain standards of "purity". There should be no thieves or snitches in the family and no history of mental illness.

Both parties must be free, born not from a lineage of slaves or servants of deities and neither family should have ever begotten changelings, witches or poisoners.

It is no wonder then that many Igbo people are still put off by the idea of a "tainted" gene pool resulting from adoption.

The parents of Chidiebere, an ex-schoolmate currently studying in the US, adopted a boy four years ago in Nigeria after having daughters.

However, her father had to seek the approval of the council of village elders and kinsmen after her grandfather refused permission.

They had several meetings and in the end, they voted on it. Finally they agreed that the days were gone when adoption was taboo.

"They told my dad they had to change the constitution to fit adopted children that will come into the village in the future," she says.

In fact, soon after she contacted the adoption agency in Minnesota that would link her to a government orphanage in Ethiopia, she had a home visit from a government representative.

She describes the moment when she took the telephone call that informed her she had been allocated a child as "surreal - very exciting. A really amazing moment."

The Shaughnessys travelled to Ethiopia in November to meet Teshale and to start the process of taking him to the US.

Mrs Shaughnessy says that by the time they met him in an orphanage in Addis Ababa - where he had been for almost a year since being placed there by his birth mother - "we had already fallen in love with him, but he didn't know who we were."

As for Teshale, who was not yet two at the time, Mrs Shaughnessy says he was scared and overwhelmed.

"He knew something was happening but not what," she says. She spoke of tears each time he left the orphanage to spend time with them.

Once in the US, she kept her son's Ethiopian name as part of honouring what his birth mother had given him.

She added that she keeps in close touch with other adoptive families who also have Ethiopian children.

Controversial practice

But this still remains a highly controversial practice. One high-profile former adoptee is a United Kingdom-based poet and playwright, Lemn Sissay.

Lemn Sissay

"Taking a child from another culture is an act of aggression”

Lemn Sissay Poet and playwright

He entered the British care system in the 1960s having been given up for adoption by his mother who gave birth in England before returning to Ethiopia.

He says that non-Africans should be closely "monitored" when seeking to adopt African children and that while many good adopting parents exist, "having an African baby is often a sign to non-African adopters of their philanthropic, political, familial or religious credentials."

Ultimately, he says, "taking a child from another culture is an act of aggression".

Selamawit (not her real name), an independent consultant who works with women's affairs organisations in Addis Ababa, shares Mr Lemn's concerns about screening adoptive families but says that "adoption in principle is not a bad thing" although it is best for children to remain with their birth families or, failing that, the extended family.

She argues that in Ethiopia adoption has become far too lucrative a business where children's interests seem secondary.

She also says there is a pressing need to monitor internal adoptions, formal or otherwise, as children can be subjected to child labour when sent to live with family members.

These cases tend to fall outside monitoring mechanisms.

Selamawit suggests that the money should be reinvested into the orphanages to help those children left behind.

Five years on from being adopted, Zeberga is legally an adult and his sister is 16.

Their father, Mr Matthews, runs a successful restaurant in Addis Ababa and says that some of his colleagues who were the most wary of his plans to adopt later became the most supportive.

"Adopting has become one of the best experiences of my life," he says.

Mrs Shaughnessy echoes these sentiments saying of her son Teshale: "We are beyond in love with him. I don't even know how to make sense of it, it's amazing what happened."

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