HARARE, ZIMBABWE — In most families, news that a loved one is going to have a child is usually received with joy. But when Kuteesa “Tess” Gweshe and her husband announced that they were going to have two more children through adoption, members of their extended families weren’t happy.
“They were not jumping up and down with excitement for us and our bundles of joy that were coming,” Gweshe says.
The newest additions to the Gweshe family are a daughter and son ages 5 and 2 years old, respectively. Gweshe says the journey to bring the children home began one Sunday in November when she and her husband attended a special information session at their church about orphaned children who needed homes. The Gweshes, who already have two biological sons ages 13 and 10, decided to add two children to their family.
Driven by their Christian faith, a small but growing number of Zimbabwean couples are choosing to enlarge their families through adoption, instead of having more biological children. But they are having to contend with fierce opposition from members of their communities, including their extended families, who like many Zimbabweans believe that adoption could contaminate the purity of their ancestry and attract evil spirits.
In 2020, 42% of Zimbabwe’s 14.9 million people were children 14 years old and younger, according to the World Bank. In the same year, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS estimated that there were 540,000 children 17 and younger who were orphaned due to AIDS.
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Like the Gweshes, Heather and Runesu Kwaramba, who already had eight children, say they were inspired to adopt by information they got from their church in 2018. They decided to adopt two children, but before they did, they involved their biological children in the process, including in determining the genders of the new family members. Runesu Kwaramba says their extended family didn’t receive the news well either.
“Cultural issues arose from the elders on my side of the family, but we explained ourselves,” he says. “I guess they’re just watching us, waiting for the day when evil spirits will visit us.”
Zimbabwe’s Department of Social Services calculated 3,200 orphans enrolled in 70 registered children’s homes in 2011, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Behavior. In 2013, just 50 families expressed interest in fostering children. Only 79 children were placed in government-approved foster care that year. The study also found that about 15 adoptions take place every year in Zimbabwe, attributing the low number to cultural myths.
Sekuru Prince Sibanda, the secretary of education for the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association, says that historically in Shona culture, adoption happened within the family structure. Families took in orphans of relatives. This ensured that children’s names and totems, emblems tied to their family and a distinct form of identification, were known. Totems are important in the performance of cultural rituals, he says, especially in emergencies and funeral rites.
“In our culture, living with a child who is not of your lineage is living with a stranger, or mutorwa, and a stranger is regarded with extreme caution,” Sibanda says. “If, for example, the child dies or is injured in a tragic accident, who do we appeal to if we don’t know where they come from or what their totems are?”
Sue Austen, of Kukosha Trust, a nongovernmental agency that helps orphans find homes for foster care and adoption, says her organization mostly works with black Christian families, but they also struggle to overcome those cultural barriers. “Culture and tradition are definitely deterrents to adoption,” she says.
Accurate statistics on adoptions are hard to come by because Zimbabwean law prohibits publication of information about children and the parents who adopt them, says Caleb Mutandwa, a family law attorney and partner at Machinga Mutandwa Legal Practitioners, in Harare. But Mutandwa, who is also the co-founder of Justice for Children, which provides legal aid to minors, says data from his legal practice shows that the number of black Zimbabweans adopting children is increasing, albeit slowly.
“Many do so because they face challenges having their own biological children,” he says, “but religion seems to be an influence, too.”
Both the Gweshes and the Kwarambas say they are encouraged that their relatives have changed their minds after having the children around. Runesu Kwaramba says the relationship has normalized, and members of his extended family have accepted the children. After the Gweshes brought the children home, they were able to address their extended family’s concerns more candidly by using their Christian faith as justification.
“We let them know that adopting is something we needed to do, and that we were not expecting it to be a bed of roses,” Gweshe says. “Our adopted daughter happens to be the only granddaughter, so it felt like a bonus to them.”
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe.