Wednesday, August 22, 2018

lies from the orphanage

I live in a culture that loves stories. History, traditions, social norms - and of course a healthy amount of gossip - are passed down and disseminated through stories. Stories are shared around the cook fires late at night (and there’s a story behind that too.) Ask a question of my neighbors that requires a culturally-informed answer and you’ll surely hear the words, “Let me tell you a story.” My friends here have inspired me and I too long to be a great story teller.

In addition to having my imagination tickled, I love the power that stories hold. Michael Margolis, strategic story teller and CEO of Get Storied, once said, The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world. You need to change your story.

Different sectors leverage stories differently to effect change. Many depend on the stories they tell in order to safeguard their own existence. For example, orphanages in Africa. 

I’ve written before about my conviction that we need to be doing orphan care better, and how that fight has become personal to me in recent years. Still as time passes, whenever I see another round of praise for Traditional Orphanage X, my heart sinks. Why are we still on this path of heartache? Despite the ample research that shows the negative effects of institutionalism – and not to mention the social movement that led the U.S. to denounce orphanages decades ago – Americans are still obsessed with orphanages on every other continent. Why, I wonder aloud?

Then I remember my community. And the cook-fire. And the stories told that teach people what to believe. And the orphanage disgrace makes more sense. It’s the power of their stories. The stories the orphanages tell – stories of the kids in their care and the importance of their work – these stories are exported across an ocean and reach the ears of those primed to hear and respond and send money back the other direction. And that set of stories becomes an anthology with undeserved acclaim.

I understand on one level. "Liking" a facebook post of a cute baby in an orphanage is much less taxing than digesting an academic brief on the traumatic effects of institutionalism on children. When reality is too complex, the stories told by the orphanages curate everything down to a manageable size. The only trouble is that the stories being told represent a very specific bias.

I’ve seen it a few hundred times: Traditional Orphanage X posts, “Lie, lie, lie, all the lies, pray for us and our lies,” and instead of being disturbed by the falsehood, donors with all their power are moved with the emotionalism that these lies induce. The words coming from these orphanages is what drives the culture of orphan care around the world and I am desperate to see the storyline change for the better.

As per my title, I want to flesh out five lies orphanages tell. 'Lie' is an awfully strong word, I know. And I use it discourteously on purpose. A half truth, a partial truth, an over-generalized truth, an extrapolated truth – these are all lies with bow-ties on. But they are still lies. I’m sorry for being all prickly, but my patience is up. Kids are being abused every day and its for their sake that I’m willing to call it like I see it.

And so, with that bit of background, let me share with you the most common lies that I see coming out of orphanages.

five lies from the orphanage

Lie One: “Nobody wanted them.”

Such a heart wrenching statement, only sociopaths would remain unmoved, particularly when the post includes a picture of a beautiful baby with big eyes and dimples. And the moment those words go public, the orphanage workers are instant heroes for being the ones who DO want him!

Ugh. And my heart sinks. Out of all the lies, this one breaks me in so many ways, mostly because of how the conclusion is derived. Many people assume that if a mother willingly drops her child off at an orphanage, she MUST not want him. Likewise, it is assumed that if mom dies in childbirth and no one steps up to take the child that clearly the family MUST not want him either. What is often overlooked is that this conclusion is a sandcastle of assumption, and from where I’m standing, the mishandling of limited information is negligent.

The truth is that most abandonment and relinquishment happens not for lack of love (wanting the child) but because of fear. Fear that she won’t be able to feed her child. Fear that their home is inadequate. Fear that she’s “less than” what her child needs. Barring mental illness, which can absolutely lead a mother to do the unthinkable, one cannot hold her child in her arms and say, “nope, don’t want her.” We are designed by God to feel attachment and connectedness – a biological bond that does not “just” drop a piece of her heart off with strangers. A face value conclusion of “nobody wanted them” ignores the most profound workings of our own biology.

And so when a child is brought to an orphanage and the staff is told, “no one wanted him,” too many orphanage owners respond too quickly with, “Great! We do!” and immediately post excited selfies with the new baby while failing to acknowledge the shambles of a broken heart they’ve just shut out on the other side of the gate. A more compassionate and controlled person asks the question: “Did they really not want him or did they just not want to fail him?” The answer to that question is discovered by slowing down the dialogue and digging to the heart, where more often than not, one will find not cold and uncaring family members, but deeply concerned and fearful ones. The lack of due diligence in NOT having these conversations with biological families is irresponsible to say the least. We owe these families more respect and support than Lie One affords them.

Lie Two: “The family couldn’t take care of them.”

Ahh, a favorite in the orphan care world. I’ve debated this one with more than a few people and the most important question I can ask is, “What do you mean by that?” If I’m speaking with Americans, they will talk about food and clothes and education and the size of house. If I listen to a cursory assessment of said child’s situation… “There were like eight kids in that family! All of the kids were sleeping on the floor! They only had one change of clothes each! They ate the same thing for every meal!” and so on and so on… I almost want to chuckle as I decide how to delicately drop the bomb of relativism on the concerned American. Pardon my candor, but you just described 85% of rural Zambians. Do you really think we should institutionalize all of them?

Orphan care providers do no one justice by going to a foreign country and whipping out an American measuring stick. Yes, in the United States, multiple kids sleeping on the floor without clean clothing and eating cereal every day is probably going to get CPS involved. But there has to be a translation of standards whereby we accept and embrace what is truly acceptable in the orphans’ context.

What I find really interesting is the juxtaposition of this Lie with fundraising efforts. How many times have I seen, “Look at our new baby! His family couldn’t take care of him, so they brought him to us. Who wants to sponsor this little angel?” And every time, I’m all HOLD THE PHONE. Are you seriously with a straight face saying, “His mama didn’t have the means and hey, hey, neither do we! Huzzah!” In short, you’re brazenly admitting that the only reason why you get to keep this baby and his family is because you have rich friends and a PayPal account and they don’t. Shameful doesn’t even come close.

Every family considering relinquishment because of poverty deserves to hear,
“You can manage. And this is your child. And he needs you! And I will leverage my connections to make sure you have what you need. I will not rest until you feel safe and successful again.”

Lie Three: “They deserve a ‘better life.’”

Privilege on a platter with a side of the American Dream, I have little patience for this ugly little sentence. My only rebuttal is: No. They deserve their real family. I think most orphanages exist under the pretense that physical care is the most important thing a child needs and that it must be provided without regard to the emotional price-tag. In fact, orphanages basically have to think this way otherwise they’d have to close themselves down.

While orphanage workers are so concerned about the food and clothes that the child isn’t getting (and won’t ever get as long as Lie Two is still in play,) what isn’t being taken into account when children are being admitted to institutions is the primal wound that is being inflicted upon the child by separating him from biological family. Abandonment is perhaps the most traumatic event that can take place in a human’s life and no amount of new clothing and fancy food can replace that.

And so, this “better life” that orphanages are giving these kids? There’s actually no evidence of it. Children raised in institutions suffer physically, mentally and emotionally FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES. Ignoring these facts is ludicrous and yet, for the love of orphanages, this is where we are.

Lie Four: “We saved a child.”

More blatant white-saviorism there ne’er was. A mother should never have to choose between feeding her child and keeping him. Orphanages dangle life and death before parents and extended family by saying, We will take care of your child and give him an education BUT you have to sign over your legal rights to us. Lies Two and Three  are used to strong-arm signatures of relinquishment that then become the anecdotes of Lie One and the fire burns in my bones as I type out the words, “You didn’t save them, you stole them.” When a child is robbed of his biological family, his cultural connection, his lineage, his identity, and subjected to the trauma of abandonment because the people with the financial means to help the family chose not to? There are no purple hearts for this.

Lie Five: “We’re doing the best we can.”

Mmm. So tricky. In case reading thus far has branded me as the worst cynic, let me lower my guard just a little and say, I hear this. I hear you. Because of the circles we run in, we know many of these orphanage workers personally. They are not monsters. I don’t know anyone who gives up a comfortable life to come and serve the least of these who is not honest-to-goodness trying their best. This Lie deserves at least that much acknowledgement.

But here’s the rub. Doing “the best that we can” does not absolve responsibility to do better. As has been noted, supporting orphans well means supporting their extended support network in ways that allow the child to remain with family. I’ve hashed this with orphanage workers before and there are several common objections:

We can’t just give money – drunk uncle will spend it all on booze.
If we give clothes and food, other children in the family end up wearing and eating it.
We don’t have the staff capacity to interact with the community on that level.
It’s too much effort.
Etc. etc. etc.

So, train family mentors. So, work through churches. So, clothe the siblings too. So, work on your community integration. So, bring in some actual social workers. So, do what it takes and don’t punk out because if that were your kid, you’d sell a kidney to make it work. These are not pie in the sky solutions. Where there is a will there is a way; but most orphanages just aren’t in the market for a new way.

And it’s here where I need to respond to everyone who has been reading through these Lies and is dying to rebut, “NOT ALL!!!” Let me join your chorus: Yes! NOT ALL!




We know organizations that are inspiring movements with their work in reunification. Groups that have heeded wisdom and now work tirelessly to get kids back with their real families. People who do everything they can to empower families to care for their children without guilt or fear. These are the angel warriors that give me hope. As a mother with a son who was cared for by some of the good ones, I know his caretakers would have moved heaven and hell to see him reunified, and when that was impossible, they moved heaven and hell to make sure he had a forever family. And on a larger scale, we should all be watching what is unfolding in Rwanda - on track to become Africa's first orphanage-free country! Bless.

But at the very same time, far too many orphanages exist that continue to thrive under the above lies. What is worse, new orphanages are being constructed every day. And every penny raised for construction costs is thanks to these five Lies.

Savin’ babies that nobody wanted and whose families never could have cared for them properly anyway and so how nice it is that we can give them a “family” and a better life.

And the donors of the first world just douse their consciences with white saviorism like hot fudge on a sundae and they think how sweet it is to be a part of this awesome work… all the while Jesus is weeping that his children are being exploited, wounded and sold.

A better story is out there. One of hope and healing. One of restorative justice. And as it is told, my deepest prayer is that the support for Lies would dry up completely. Because it’s funding that drives all of this, after all. And isn’t that a demon to be exorcised. Orphanages afraid to change their “business model” because it would be costly. Because this is how they’ve always done it, and it pays the bills. Paralyzed by the fear of, “who will fund us if we don’t have any babies on site to claim as our own?”

And that’s where God’s people need to step in and say, We will. We will fund reunification and first families. We will support mothers and extended kin. We will fight trauma with our financial power. As key stakeholders in this hot mess we believe that better can be done and we unleash the purse strings to see that happen.

And when that story gets told? I promise you, it will change everything.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

how I made every woman in a 25 mile radius jealous

We had already been in Zambia for two years when we got married, and as soon as our zam-tastic wedding was over, we were anxious to get back. Being the first foreigners to ever live in the Fimpulu, everything we did was intriguing to our neighbors. They loved to watch the way I braided my hair and washed my dishes and piddled around in my garden and so when we returned to the village as newlyweds, it was no surprise that everyone was waiting to watch and see how we’d "do" marriage.

My neighbors were worried that I’d do it wrong, so they promptly pulled me aside for training. They taught me how to sweep my home and cook his food and make him ***real*** happy.

After a few months of blatant failure in the wife department, my teachers pulled me aside again and told me to step up my game. Their first threat was: “We taught you better than this. Get your act together or we’ll beat you.” Why yes they did. Greater love has no Zam-Mama than this, that she will slap the white off your face if you don’t get your crap together. And their second threat was, “Because if you don’t do it right, he will find someone who does.

In self defense, let me say that "bad wife" is a relative concept. If you were supposed to rise before dawn to sweep the house and scrub your floors and thrice daily cook elaborate meals for your husband while you ate leftovers in the other room, and kneel before him and never look him in the eye... you might be a failure too.

I should also mention the added concern of my elders that we had been married for three whole months and I wasn’t pregnant yet, which meant, clearly, that I was either not doing my marital duty at all, or that I was doing something to hinder conception against my husbands obvious wishes - both of which are cardinal sins.

But the real disappointment, and the reason why the mamas were ready to slap me back to the cold land, was because not only was I failing at my obvious duties, but I was also letting JEREMY do them.

They watched in horror as they saw him sweeping the house at all hours of the day! They saw him stoking the fire and putting pots on it! They saw him scrubbing my underwear! Good heavens woman, have you no shame?!?! One woman asked what kind of juju I was slipping into his porridge to get him to behave like that. Theological underpinnings of the question aside, I explained to that woman and others who were genuinely concerned for our marriage that I had in fact not witched my husband, and that he was doing these things of his own volition. I tried to explained the counter-cultural concept that my husband serves me simply because he loves me.

They still told me he’d leave me within six months. I relayed that message to Jeremy who, being quite offended, retaliated by making out with me on the front porch.

Six months later, Jeremy was still sharing the work load and I still hadn’t born him a child and we were still sleeping with each other and no one else… and all the elders just sort of raised eyebrows and kept watching. Fascinating, they said.

 Two years later, Jeremy hadn’t returned me to my parents or asked for his dowry back and our circle of gawkers grew larger still. I think most women accepted that I wasn’t slipping magical herbs into his porridge, but they still weren’t entirely sure what the X factor in this relationship was. At least I was finally pregnant and giving him his first child, so I wasn’t a complete waste of womanhood.

Turns out the baby was just a whole other realm of radical for my husband. If they thought kissing on the front porch was bold, nothing could prepare them for diaper changes. The reaction to that stunt was so addictive, Jeremy took the show on the road. We had gone to town together and I had entered the market to get some vegetables during which time Jeremy changed Bronwyn’s diaper on the hood of the Land Rover. The next week, there in the market again, I walked across the dusty selling space and noticed an above average number of people staring and pointing at me. (I mean, a handful is normal, a crowd is a little curious.) Finally one of the onlookers approached and all she said was, “You’re the woman who is married to the man who changes diapers!” Umm…  yes! Yes I am! Were you wanting an autograph?

Jeremy’s fame rapidly spread from there. We were hard pressed to go anywhere in a 25 mile radius where we didn’t hear “Jeremy! Jeremy!” being called out by various members of his unofficial fan club. And as for me? I was just “Mrs. Jeremy,” the lucky lady connected to this beast of wonder, who would sweep and cook and change diapers and remain faithful without needing to be bewitched and was still manly enough to build things and drive a tank of a vehicle and kill things… and other such measures of manhood.

manhood - like caring for your infant while slaying cobras. no big deal.

Now jealous though they might be, it's not like any of these ladies are coming after my man. Feelings about Jeremy waver between admiration and sheer terror. He is, after all, a bit of a powerful mystery which keeps most ladies from coming too close. Any woman in the village will still insist on talking to me even if they really have a question for him.

But truly, my husband's acclaim – the stares and pointing and side comments about how lucky I am – these are treasures I store up in my heart. I adore that in a context where we work tirelessly to fit in, that for the handful of ways we actually work to stand out, we do it for love. Jealousy can be healthy if it stirs up motivation to step out and try something new. We feel not at all guilty for the ways this crazy idea of serving your spouse has caught on with a precious handful of men whose end game is happiness and have observed this as a good way to get there. The women on the receiving end know who they have to thank for that novel idea.

I had no clue, really, that I was stepping into something so rare and compelling, making every woman in a 25 mile radius jealous of me, just be simply saying "I DO." And yet, nine years later, as I reflect on the significance of this marriage, I’m thankful all the more for my maven man – the one who turns heads with his flip of pancake and stops traffic with his road side diaper changes. You’re what every woman wants, babe - especially me.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

third culture kids and America first

Like most holidays, the Fourth of July is kind of a funny thing to try to celebrate when you are living in a different country. For us in the village, we are the only Americans for a good distance and I’m terrified of fireworks exploding in someone’s face, so my inclination is really to just let the day slip on by. I think I’m giving it greater consideration this year only because our oldest has recently become more aware of her American-ness and honestly, it has made our whole family pause a bit.

These are turbulent times in the Colvin house, to be frank. I don’t know why I expected smooth sailing forever. I mean, we are raising third culture kids, famous for their angst and exhaustive search for belonging. Wishful thinking maybe?

For six years, Bronwyn believed she was actually, ethnically, Zambian. Everything about her life would have told her so. After all, she has spent roughly 2,153 days doing typical Zam-kid things like eating nshima, climbing trees, dipping un-ripe mangos in salt and digging for rats after the fires go through. She’s never heard the Pledge of Allegiance or the Star Spangled Banner but she can sing the Zambian National Anthem flawlessly – Zambian accent and all! And what always made us chuckle is that, until recently, if you told her she wasn’t Zambian, she’d fight you. (She gets her feistiness from her father, obviously.)

I think my bio kids have always known they are a bit “different.” They get teased, laughed at, stared at, stroked – every form of unwanted attention possible. They get pulled into pictures with people they don’t know, asked to “perform” at random times, and get reminded often that their Bemba is noticeably a second language.

Their otherwise beautiful Zam-life – up in the trees, making banana stalk babies and rolling in the dirt – has always outweighed any sense of “other-ness.” They’ve always attributed negative experiences to the indiscretions of those who cause them… but never to their being American.

Until recently.
posing at the Chief's palace

Our family did a thing earlier this year where we sent mom to America for two months which apparently un-caged a multi-cultural bird that has desperately been waiting to fly. America has existed for our kids only as a figment of their imagination. Out of all of them, Bronwyn has spent the most time in that country – a whopping eleven months, actually, which transpired for her between the age of two and three – a time when a child’s memory is totally accurate, of course.

And so our beloved six year old’s recollection of her parent’s birthplace is basically Grandma and all of the benefits of living in her house, which includes, but is not limited to:

No set bedtime
The absence of the word ‘no’
Presents just because its Wednesday so why not
Bathing in an oversized tub under 18 inches of bubbles
Eating whipped cream out of the palm of her hand at 7 o’clock in the morning
Watching Micky Mouse for six hours a day while being served fruit and cheese on a tray
Etc., Etc., Etc.

And so when mom boarded that plane and went off to gallivant around the United States, it clicked for the first time in our eldest’s head that that was a thing. And once a trip to magic grandma-land was within the realm of possibility, it was a short jump in logic to start begging the question, Well then why in the name of all that is good and right in this world are we not all going there?

Because America is, in her unformed mind, a place of perfect and utter happiness, going there naturally became the knee jerk response to anything unpleasant.

You are making me eat my vegetables? Fine I’m going to America!
I have to do math? Fine! I’m going to America!
I don’t want to share with Leonie! I’m just going to America!

Not that that her declarations ever materialized for her – I mean, the child still ate her vegetables and did her math and had to share with her sister – all without boarding a 747. But still the magical possibility of escape to never-never land not only stayed alive but also grew in influence.

Feeling out of place in this environment combined with the known possibility of going to a “perfect” one, had the effect of pitting the two countries against one another. America could do no wrong and Zambia became the scape-goat for everything. All those little reminders that she’s “different” – once brushed off as other people’s bad manners – now became a dark spot for a whole nation. All of that third culture kid insecurity now had a perpetrator in her mind. Zambia was the problem; and so it followed that America would be the solution.

She started communicating those feelings in different ways. Boycotting chitenge dresses and refusing to curtsey before her elders and suddenly hating nshima. Her teachers told me that she’s racist because she got “sick” during Bemba period every day. Eventually she gave voice to her internal crisis, telling us directly, “I don’t belong here. I’m too different. I don’t feel like this is my land.” (My land? Who are you, Abraham and Lot?)

We sat outside one afternoon, Jeremy and I did, pondering if we had blown it all, ruined our first born by asking her to straddle an ocean, something that even we – with fully formed frontal lobes – fail to do perfectly. As we sat and talked, we watched our emotionally entangled child tangle herself up in a tree, chatting away (in Bemba, mind you) with three of her besties, and then come down and ask if they could all stay for dinner. She doesn’t hate this place like she thinks she does, we assured ourselves.

And thus begins a new phase of parenting for us. For the record, this is way more challenging than getting them to sleep through the night or learn to use the potty. This new stage of helping them navigate a world in which they belong everywhere and no where at the same time – light a candle for us.

We want our children to understand that loving one place need not require hating the other. Acknowledging our ties to America does not require rejection of Zambia. A love of nshima is not infidelity to hotdogs. And because the “I’m going to America” line is clearly unproductive, we’re finding new words, – something more healing and less toxic.

We started reciting every single day, sometimes with her teary face resting in between our hands, these truths:

There is hard everywhere.

There is good everywhere.

God loves absolutely every person on this planet the same.

And so we do too.

Go and chase beauty.

Go and be kind.

Every. Single. Day.

We speak the hard words, and she repeats them – less resistant all the time. A rewiring of synapses until her soul agrees with what her mouth obliges to say. And as we go on joy hunts and count our blessings, Zambia regains its good standing.

nshima and lounging with her favorite uncle emmanuel

On the flip side, we continue to deconstruct the well-supported myth that America is the land flowing with milk and honey. She hears us rant about ‘the state of America’ enough that she’s not totally clueless, but really most of it is above her. And yet, as Jeremy and I discuss the drama of our homeland juxtaposed with the drama of our family, the irony is not lost on us.

America as a whole is not entirely unlike my six year old. Both are trying to figure out who they are. Both are guilty of blaming the “other” for discomfort and trouble. Both are fighting to preserve a fictitious image of an America-past where everything is apparently rosy. Both have been convinced that a love of one necessitates a hatred of another. The definitions of culture have become muddled and nationality is a vague construct. The relational strain is more palpable than ever. The good times are gone.

Raising a nation is quite different than raising a child, so I focus on the three littles in my care and pray for the rest. All I know is that in our quest to produce happy, functional, morally responsible human beings, we take a hint from America’s present crisis and we pass the following conviction on to our kids in as many ways a possible:

You are citizens of heaven, and that changes everything.

Human decency demands we think about citizenship through an ethical lens, but our Christianity demands we think about it through a theological one as well. There is no sense in fighting for “our people” and against “their people” when our citizenship is not of this world anyway. There is no reason to love ourselves and hate the other when we are all “other” because heaven is our homeland. There is no logic in building a wall or locking others up and out when our cultural identity is wrapped up in Christ.

This is not about politics. This is about eschatology.

This fourth of July, we in the Colvin home will give a nod to history and heritage and we’ll probably wave like goofballs in the general direction of Grandma’s house. But there will be no celebration of nationalism or patriotism or ethno-centrism, because as long as we have life on this earth, we as a family declare that our home is in heaven. We can meaningfully sing, God bless America and Zambia and any other place we might dwell for a while. We want the best for the people of Mexico and Russia and Pakistan and every location on this glorious globe. Any other attitude belies our faith.

There is no such thing as America first for a people whose anthem is
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be done.

Nothing else can help our third culture kids make sense of their weird experience on this planet until they grasp this beautiful truth. We can belong everywhere and nowhere because the third culture to which we really belong is other-worldly. Home is not Zambia, really, and it’s not America, really; it’s heaven, really, and heaven is forever.

Our existence between here and there is defined by how well we love every nation, tribe and people while we’re en route. C.S. Lewis in Till We Have Faces wrote, “No man can be an exile if he remembers that all the world is one city.” It’s a small extrapolation then to say that you can rightly banish no man when you remember this is his city too.

I imagine God weeping bitterly as our ancestors drew fraudulent lines on a map and as proud men scrambled to claim more of it for themselves. And I imagine Clive Staples rolling over in his grave as his American brothers and sisters fight for the whiteness of their arbitrary territory.

We don’t get that angelic immigration stamp in our passports until the very end, but truly, we become better citizens of any country when we strive to make every place a little more heavenly. Jeremy and I pray that through our actions we preach this for our children again and again. Wherever we are, we welcome in every single person. Wherever we are, we seek peace for every single person. Wherever we are, we do justice to every single person. Wherever we are, we extend mercy to every single person.

This is not hardship, it’s the gospel.

Our children may always wrestle with place, identity, and the inherent awkwardness of being a third culture kid. When you eat nshima and pay in kwacha but read Beatrix Potter and watch the Lego movie you accept that all TCKs are a little eccentric. And through all the ups and downs, I pray they learn: the only way to live happily as a third-culture kid is to check the weight we give to our passports as we remember where we really, truly belong. 

Happy Fourth of July.