(The New Vision – Saturday, February 15, 2014)
MUKONO, UGANDA ✦ There’s new joy in our Mukono home these days. Our Ugandan daughter, Hannah, is now legally in our family. She danced when we showed her the formal adoption paper.
This, after waiting more than 500 days. That’s five hundred. Welcome to the world of international adoptions where you need the patience of Job to slog through it all. Adopting a child, especially in Uganda, can be this much of a roller coaster ride.
In our case, we’re Canadians in Uganda since 2005. My wife and I met Hannah in 2009, when she was three, in a Jinja orphanage. When she was barely larger than a cat, she had been found abandoned in an Mbarara hospital. Her family? Unknown.
To adopt Hannah, we then jumped through every hoop of Ugandan law. This included fostering her for three years. That’s more than 1,000 days.
We showed our commitment and suitability and Hannah found herself loved. Her countenance brightened like the sun. She now had two siblings of similar ages. She came to love her international school and new friends and the entirety of her life, including cousins and grandparents and other loved ones from Canada. Hannah had an identity.
“Mommy, daddy, brother, sister,” she said when asked what gift she liked most during her first Christmas with us in Uganda.
A Ugandan social worker reported this to the court after our three-year fostering ended. At that time, it should have been a straightforward approval. Instead, my family was given this strange and uncertain 500-day wait, from mid-2012 to just recently. It took its toll day after day.
We were asked to travel over and over and over to Jinja court. Each time, Hannah would wear her best dress. Each time we didn’t get our scheduled hearing. Often the judge was presiding elsewhere because the courts are that short. Each time we’d return home empty-handed.
“Am I not really in the family, then?” Hannah asked once.
One day the court lost our file. Nothing could proceed. My wife and I stood in wonder when we saw the clerk’s filing system: bulging and battered folders half-falling in an old room, floor to ceiling.
Days turned to weeks and months. We pleaded to our lawyer for help. Another Ugandan said that bribing the court would be the only way, that officials don’t ask, they just expect you to know. We didn’t do it. Our file, mysteriously, was eventually found.
Another day, we were stopped from boarding a flight in Entebbe. There’s child trafficking to consider, and, Hannah, after all, didn’t have a full adoption order. Yes, she had the required travel visa and we had met the legal requirements. Still, an official refused to let Hannah fly.
Now what? Would my wife and other children fly to Canada while I stayed in Uganda with Hannah? Such are the unnerving thoughts. The plane was at the gate. At the last minute, a better-informed supervisor give us clearance.
We continued our commitment to Hannah and to Uganda also – my wife is a physician who directs a program to help Ugandan women survive childbirth. Even so, our wait of 100 days turned to 200, then 300, and 400, and then 500 and more.
And while Hannah remained with us, so did the gnawing truth that on any day the state could knock on our Ugandan door and say, “Thanks for helping, but this girl isn’t yours, not fully, not yet, and we reserve the right to take her.”
“Will I always be in this family?” Hannah asked another time.
It’s no way to live.
Not that my family is so naïve to think the Ugandan courts, neglected and forgotten as they are, are that concerned with troubles of one expatriate family. Cases of MPs thrown from parliament have waited longer than 500 days, along with other weighty cases languishing in legal backrooms.
On the other hand, Uganda, according to UNICEF, has more than two million orphans. Who, if not Ugandans, should care about them? What message is Uganda sending the world when expatriates who can help are given such a rough ride?
Canadians, in fact, rarely adopt Ugandan children because of onerous policies like the three-year residential period. This shuts most out. That Uganda has never signed off on Hague Convention international standards on adoption also doesn’t help its cause.
And while international adoptions in some African nations are increasing, the larger worldwide trend is down. The need is as great as ever, but there are tighter regulations and higher costs, which can now be up to $35,000, about UgSh 85M.
The United States, the most popular home for global adoptions, took in about 23,000 children in 2004. By 2011, that plummeted to 9,320. With longer wait times, children also now join families much older.
Not surprisingly, more families abroad adopt domestically. Richer countries also have needy children. But developing nations like Uganda still have much bigger challenges. In Hannah’s case, she now has opportunities for citizenship and education and a future she otherwise wouldn’t imagine.
Her story had a remarkable twist from the start. My wife and I had been praying for a girl we could adopt, then name Hannah. Months later, at that Jinja orphanage, this little girl walked bravely to us. We asked her name. “It’s Hannah.”
Five years later – what we’re now celebrating – it was on Hannah’s birthday when the court finally approved Hannah’s adoption order. Our lawyer phoned. The order was just given. Yes, on Hannah’s 8th birthday. Like that first meeting in Jinja, what are the odds?
It’s a second extraordinary bookend in the story of one Ugandan girl.
But what about Africa’s other vulnerable children? There are, as the Ugandans would express it, too many. What are their stories and their odds? How long will they be left waiting for reasons that are often so very inexcusable?