Friday, March 6, 2009

Friday Friend or Family Feature: Guest Blogger Edition- Rebecca Haile-Part II. Ms. Haile answers our questions...

First, thanks to everyone for all of your positive comments. Really, I could be a guest on this site any day.

Here are my responses to your questions, in no particular order.

I'm curious how often, if ever, she goes back to Ethiopia? Does she take her children?

I have only been back once since my family left in 1975/1976. We left as refugees, and for years returning was out of the question for safety reasons. In later years we didn’t go because we didn’t have the money for the trip and because I’m not sure my parents wanted to go as visitors – they were waiting for the day we could go home for good. When I went in 2001 I was an adult, I had the resources and time to make the trip on my own (my parents still have not returned), I didn’t yet have children, and I was reconciled to the idea of going as a visitor and not a citizen.

I look forward to going again, and hope to take my kids soon. (At six and four, they are still a bit young.) I look forward to exposing them to the history and culture of a country that is a part of their heritage, and I look forward to introducing them to family and having them understand that they are connected to real people who live half way across the planet. I’m excited for them to experience ways of living that will be so different from what they are used to here in New York City. And I so hope the trip will feel natural rather than forced, and that they will appreciate all that is different but also feel some genuine connection – sort of like their relationship with their grandparents. We will see how all these grand plans turn out.

I wonder if she could comment more on the dynamics between the Ethiopian-American community and the African-American community? One of the things I think about is that my future child will have a whole cultural background from Ethiopia that I want to preserve as much as possible, but that he or she will most likely be perceived as African-American in this country - what are the implications of that for raising a child?

I’ve thought about a lot about the dynamics between these two communities, and happened to address the question in my joint remarks (with my dad) at the Harvard conference last April. Here is what I said then:

“A third prediction is that the new generation will redefine the relationship between Ethiopians and the existing African American community. The relationship between Ethiopians and African Americans has not always been good, and I’ve found this to be a very sensitive subject for the first generation. At worst, Ethiopians can be overly prejudiced – this is the uncomfortable flip side of what my father has described as our sense of ourselves as a separate peoples. At best, we come to the United States with little appreciation of the history associated with African American culture and are therefore susceptible to all manner of misunderstandings. For example, when I was a freshman, Williams College invited me, as it invited all African American freshmen, to come to campus a few days early for orientation. Neither my father nor I knew what to make of the invitation – in retrospect I know that I did not have the cultural compass with which to decipher the meaning of the gesture. Did Williams think black kids needed special help? Did it expect its black students to be part of a unified group? Was there something going on I did not understand? Clearly, there was.

For its part, the African-American community has not always been understanding of the culture and history that is specific to Africans or Caribbean blacks.

The next generation is changing all of this. We reject the prejudices of our parents and have developed a much better understanding of the complexities of race in the United States. Moreover, as we come of age in the United States, particularly in urban areas, we often find that an “African-American” identity is as reflective of our experience as any. Again, in the interviews I conducted in Los Angeles, “African American” was a top choice.”

If I am right, as I hope, the historic disconnect or unease between Ethiopians and African-Americans will be less of an issue going forward.

How will Ethiopian children be perceived or self-identify? As I wrote in my initial post, the Ethiopian-American population is growing, and that growth brings greater opportunity for cultural preservation. At the moment the Ethiopian or habesha identity remains strong among those born in Ethiopia or born to first generation parents. But even a community of 500,000 is a tiny minority in the United States, and adopted children will have a much weaker tie to Ethiopian culture. So I think it is quite likely that adopted children will find a home within the African American community, and that they will almost certainly be seen as African American by others.

I’m not sure what the “implications” of this will be. Obviously, every parent in a biracial family should be prepared for the issues associated with raising a child that does not look like his/her parents. But since the adoption of Ethiopian children is a relatively new phenomenon, the question of how this particular group of internationally adopted black kids experience the added element of coming from Ethiopia -- or even whether there will be a general, rather than family- or child-specific, experience that can be described -- remains to be seen. In my own multi-cultural family, the plan at the moment is to incorporate all of our cultures into our lives as much as we can (again why I am so grateful for my parents and look forward to visiting Ethiopia). Going forward, I hope I can take my cues from my kids to figure out what they need and what they enjoy and try to respond to both.

I have been thinking about what you wrote about being a child in Ethiopia. I am remembering, too, that you wrote in your book, "Ethiopia is not a country where adults fret over children's feelings." Would you expound on that a little bit? Is this a cultural or generational difference in your opinion?

I think it is both. Clearly, attitudes toward parenting and children have evolved in this generation. There is no question that children are treated with much more respect, and that parenting is a far more thoughtful and intentional enterprise than it was twenty or thirty years ago.

But in the case of Ethiopia there is also a strong societal element. Ethiopia remains a traditional, conservative country that has not experienced anything like the relatively steady (if turbulent) expansion of human and civil rights that Western countries have witnessed over the last 50-100 years. Ethiopian children simply don’t have the rights and respect that children in the United States have. Violence toward children (corporal punishment is widespread and socially acceptable), low school enrollment rates, child labor, female genital mutilation, discrimination toward children born out of wedlock, born with disabilities or orphaned because of HIV/AIDS – the attitudes and statistics regularly reported in United Nations or private studies on these topics are simply appalling. All of this feeds into a societal view of children as second-class citizens who are expected to defer to adults at all times. Even in urban, professional families, children just are not seen as individuals with opinions that matter or preferences that should be respected.

Sometimes when I’m with my sister or cousins and one of our kids throws a tantrum or refuses to eat what’s been served or demands red rather than blue socks when everyone is already late, and the parent of said kid is working hard to reason with or settle down the kid, another one of us will joke: “Just one summer in Ethiopia! Just one short summer, that’s all it would take and this kid would shape right up.”

Ethiopia has a long, long way to go on this front.

I am curious if Ms. Haile has made any observations about what the Ethiopian community living in the US feels about so many Ethiopian children being adopted and raised abroad.

I know that readers of this blog are well aware of all the pro and con discussions surrounding international adoption, which in the case of Ethiopia generally means the adoption of black kids by mostly white families. I can’t say where the Ethiopian community comes down on these issues, as I don’t know of any surveys or studies of attitudes. Anecdotally speaking, I can report that within my own group of family and friends people generally express the same mix of support and concern I see expressed elsewhere, with the older first generation being somewhat more in favor and less concerned about how adopted children will fare in their new families than people my age or younger who’ve grown up here (which may tie to the overall generational/cultural attitudes toward children discussed above). In addition, I hear more concern about the government’s role in the process, and also some sadness around the idea that “we can’t take care of our own.”

Here is something I think about which falls a bit outside the usual discussion: whether adoptive families will in time become engaged advocates for Ethiopia. It isn’t sexy, the long term business of pushing for a democratic government or good US foreign policy in the Horn or advocating for infrastructure or the development of good farming practices (discussed below). It isn’t nearly as clear-cut or gratifying as responding to a heart-breaking famine or loving a beautiful child. But Ethiopia desperately needs such advocates. I don’t mean to say that adoptive families have a special obligation – I know that decisions about what causes to support and how are personal ones informed by many factors. But if such families do help raise awareness about Ethiopia, or if they do become involved with these issues, then that, I think, would be a significant and very welcome consequence of adoption.

If Ms. Haile would also kindly be willing to entertain the complex issue of foreign aid in Africa, I'd be very interested to know how she feels. I've heard some say that a whole generation of people in Africa know nothing but subsisting on aid as a way of life. Is aid helping more or harming more the people in Africa?

This is indeed a complex issue and I don’t have any special expertise in the area. So please take my comments accordingly.

I think that if you are looking at aid from the perspective of a hungry family, it is hard to be “against” it. I know that if my child were suffering from malnutrition and I had no options I would take any assistance I could, no matter what I felt about the source of the help or long term impact of my decision to take the help.

However, if you look at whether aid as it is currently designed is helping or hurting the goal of food-independence, there is a lot to worry about. It is sobering to think that Ethiopia was ever known as “the breadbasket of Africa.” Ethiopia has plentiful rivers, abundant rainfall and fertile farming regions. A frequent reaction from people arriving in Addis Ababa for the first time is surprise at how green the city is. Ethiopia does not, however, have modern irrigation systems; it does not have decent roads via which food can be transported from productive regions to arid ones; it does not have farmers with access to fertilizer or pest-resistant hybrids or anything remotely resembling 21st century farming practices; it does not have a market economy (all farms are state-owned) that rewards farmers for good decisions or a democratically elected government concerned with general welfare rather than self-preservation.

Direct food aid doesn’t do anything about these underlying problems. Worse, it may be counterproductive because it distorts local markets and undercuts local farmers – this in a society where an astonishing 85% of the population makes its living from agriculture. So what is the rationale for having such a small percentage of US aid to Ethiopia allocated to farming development -- less than 5% of all aid, and by several estimates less than 1% of all food aid? Or for the United States to require that all direct food aid come in the form of food produced in the US rather than allocating some money to buy food from Ethiopian farmers in regions not affected by drought?

Readers of the book will recall that my Uncle Tadesse, whom I admire, has made it one of his life’s projects to advocate for an irrigation system that harnesses the water of the highland rivers and delivers it to farming regions in a reliable manner. He is absolutely convinced that Ethiopia can feed itself.

The good news is that the shortcomings of aid are well known. And while the political realities in donor countries may frustrate reform, private foundations such as the Gates Foundation have begun experimenting with forms of aid that are designed to address the underlying issues. Hopefully these measures, together with homegrown efforts like Tadesse’s, will produce some long-term results.

[There was a question about "There is No Me Without You” but since I haven’t read the book (yet) I can’t answer it.]


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for taking the time to answer our questions!

  2. Thank you to her for her wonderful, in-depth answers and generosity with her time in engaging.

    I'm coming back to read this more thoroughly again.

    BTW, does she know Hannah Pool???

    (I can't get Ms. Pool to answer my petition to have her guest blog for us! :) )



  3. Thank you so much, Ms. Haile, for taking time to engage in this discussion with us! Your words and insight are much appreciated!

    The sun is shining a bit brighter today as I revel in the remarkable opportunities I have had as a reader of your blog, Julie. Thanks to you as well!

  4. Ms. Haile, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions.

    Having just completed our second adoption from Ethiopia, I am ready to turn my energy and efforts toward more actively advocating for Ethiopia (not much of a multi-tasker, here!).

    I am really grateful for your insights into the difficult issues that Ethiopia faces -- and also your thoughts about culture and identity. You've given me a lot to think about -- thank you again.

  5. Thank you. This is absolutely wonderful. I especially love the last answer about food aid. I, too, was amazed by how green everything is. I think Ethiopia has a very bright future, and I hope it happens in my lifetime.

  6. Thanks you so much for taking time to answer these questions. It is wonderful and eye opening!

  7. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.

  8. this is simply wonderful. Thank you Rebecca for this great information, and Julie for hosting. I'm going to read this over and over. I really love that Rebecca touched on adoptive families advocating for issues in Ethiopia such as democracy or other such changes (better roads, irrigation, etc). The direct result for my family growing up, once my parents had adopted my three sisters from Romania, is that they (parents) got directly involved in the politics of that country and US relations with Romania. It has been a very interesting journey and Zach and I hope to be involved more in Ethiopia as well.
    Thank you!

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