International Adoption and the White Savior Industrial Complex

No White Saviors
5 min readSep 12, 2019

A Birth Mum Tells Her Story:

I am called Rose Nantumbwe. I am a 30 year old single mum of 3 children in Kamuli, Uganda. I operate a small shop within the Kamuli market where I sell vegetables. I make about 5000 Ugandan shillings ($1.50 USD) on a daily basis if business is good. In 2015 I lost my husband in a boda (motorcycle) accident. Before my husband died, we struggled but we were able to save enough for our two oldest to attend school. Simon, our youngest, was only 9 months old when I lost my husband. In that same year I found out that Simon had Sickle Cell. Now only having one income for our family, Simon’s condition heavily affected us financially and emotionally. Having to run to the hospital and pay a number of medical bills, it made it that much more challenging for me to care of the rest of my children.

It was in 2016, around a year of struggling to care of my children on my own, when my brother-in-law, who lives in Kampala (the capital city), visited us. He saw the situation we were in, that I could barely afford rent, leave alone school fees for my two oldest. He told me about a Australian missionary couple near his home in Kampala who was paying for some of his children to attend school, he believed if they heard my situation, they would want to help provide for Julius and Grace, my two oldest, to attend school. So my brother in law went with Julius and Grace to Kampala where they were able to start attending school again.

A few months later I received a phone call from my brother-in-law, explaining that the missionary couple was planning to move back to Australia. He shared with me that they had taken a liking to my children in particular. They had heard the story of my husband’s passing and how we had been struggling ever since. They proposed going with Julius and Grace to Australia, where schooling is free and they could receive a very good education. It was already hard to have my children living in Kampala, so thinking of them leaving the country without me brought me a lot of fear and hesitation. They promised, however, that this would only be temporary and that my children would come back to visit every year and would even move back to Uganda after graduating from senior levels.

Having no other option, no other way to send Julius and Grace to school, I agreed. They asked if I would at least come and meet them to discuss and sign a few papers. I was told that the papers I was signing would make the process easier for them to go with my children to Australia. I signed the papers, my children left with the missionaries in 2017 and I have not heard anything from them ever since. It has been two years and I am left with such a deep pain and sense of regret.

The Buying and Selling of Children:

This is one story out of countless others we have heard from vulnerable families who have been taken advantage of and robbed of their children in the name of adoption, a concept so foreign that we do not even have a word for it in any of our local language here in Uganda. For many, adoption in Uganda is a lucrative business. There are individuals and organizations who have made themselves rich off of fraudulent and unethical adoptions, taking advantage of the often well-intention-ed white saviors as well as the poor and desperate families just trying to find a way to provide for their children.

While it is true that most coming to adopt children here believe that they are doing a good and self-less act by taking on an orphan and giving them a “better life”, one serious issue is that most of the children leaving for international adoption are not actually orphans at all. Most children leaving for inter-country adoption have at least one living parent or someone in the family who could provide for them if given the right support. Often, children are leaving Uganda and other over-exploited countries because of poverty, not because they are orphaned or without anyone to care for them.

From the 2015 Reuters story, Exclusive: Fraud and deceit at the heart of Uganda adoptions to United States,

“Data shows that a large proportion of the children put forward for adoption have surviving relatives. A leaked study into foreign adoptions in Uganda, overseen by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, found only a fifth of all adopted children it surveyed were orphans who had lost both parents”.

While there has been a great deal of exposure surrounding the fraud and corruption rampant within international adoption from Uganda, those who benefit from the buying and selling of children are far more powerful than those who have been harmed in the process.

Watch: Adoption Inc. The Baby Business, “How demand from US families seeking to adopt babies from abroad has paved the way for exploitation and fraud” and read the CNN piece, “The ‘orphan’ I adopted from Uganda already had a family”, to gain an even deeper understanding of the way children are trafficked from Uganda in the name of adoption.

So Why Don’t They Just Offer Support to the Families?

Adopting a child from Africa (yes, the entire continent) might just be the ultimate act of white saviorism. Most white adoptive parents have never engaged in anti-racist work or conversation. Most apply the color-blind perspective to race, which is easy when you experience privilege rather than oppression based on the color of your skin. This is, however, is very dangerous for the children being adopted into families who are ill-equipped and unwilling to acknowledge the ways these children will experience the world in their Black bodies.

Racism and white supremacy are the root cause and justification for the separation of Black families. This is not only an issue of the white adoptive parents and western adoption agencies but a deeply rooted internalized oppression we have yet to confront within ourselves in a real way. From the child-finders to the lawyers to the judges to the biological families, many convince themselves that the children will be better off in a white family. There is a total disregard for what the child will lose by way of their biological family, language and culture.

So long as people are able to profit off the separation of Black families and so long as there is a blatant disregard for the Black family unit, there will be endless excuses made as to why international adoption should remain on the table as an option for Ugandan children.

If African families and African cultures were respected in the way that they should be, we would all be working far more urgently to ensure that all efforts were exhausted to keep children in the families and cultures they were born into. As social workers and professionals committed to upholding the human rights of our people, we know that the $50,000 being used on each international adoption could stretch much further to help far more children remain in their families, country and culture of origin. This is, after all, a basic human right of all children, is it not?