testimony: two mothers, two cultures: i know how it feels

Sifiso Masango has left his white 'family' for a new life with his African one. Aminatta Forna was lucky enough to have both
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I hope one day SifisoMasango understands what precisely happened to him when he was 10 years old and why. The newspaper reports will tell him nothing. They are obsessed with the race issue, the ambitions of civil liberties lawyers, politically-correct social workers and over-zealous judges. Whether Sifiso ever understands will depend on whether he manages to retain links with both the countries in which he has been raised - the Western through his potential adoptive mother Salome Stopford, and the African through his Zulu parents Selina and Charles Masango. The central question in this story is not race but culture.

I am well placed to know. Like Sifiso, but for rather different reasons, I have an African family and a white, Western family. My father, from Sierra Leone in West Africa, met and married my Scottish mother when they were both students in the 1960s. Later they divorced and both remarried within their own cultures. We children grew up spending time with both sides of the family. So, like Sifiso, I have two countries, two cultures, two families and two mothers.

His family in Africa is poor. Mine is not. Even so, Sifiso will notice differences in family life that go beyond wealth, language or skin colour. In Maida Vale he lived with just his adoptive sisters and Salome Stopford. In his African family, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents and neighbours will all be part of the household. He will help look after the younger children of the house. I'd guess his relationship with his mother, whilst loving, will be less familiar and based on respect rather than intimacy.

Reports here portray his mother either as a victim of apartheid or a woman who abandoned him, who was capable of giving her child away to be taken to a foreign country that she could not even locate on a map. Mrs Stopford, on the other hand, invested time and money in the child and his education, developed a close, loving relationship with him. The boy regards her as his "mother" and so do we in Britain, for that is what we consider motherhood to be.

Throughout most of Africa a very different philosophy guides family life. And, in my experience, it is this: the mother is only one, albeit central, figure in her child's life. In reality he is the responsibility of the whole community. On a continent where most women work, this is a social response which is dictated not by the writings of childcare gurus, but by survival and the good of the whole community.

According to the reports, there are two very different accounts of the understanding that was reached between Sifiso's two mothers. Salome Stopford says she always intended to adopt him. Selina Masango, it seems, thought he was going to Britain principally to be educated, that he would return home for holidays and when his studies were finished. Exactly.

In my family home in Sierra Leone there were several "Sifisos" who lived with us at different times. The ones who were there when I grew up were Morlai, Esther and Musu. Esther became a teacher, Morlai studied sciences and Musu married and had children. Last time I went home to visit, my African mother had given up work and the house was full of children from up country who lived as family, helped around the house and went to school.

It's a system that exists throughout Africa, a kind of informal wardship where people help each other and each other's children. At present, my husband and I are planning to take financial responsibility for educating a distant cousin. If we lived in Sierra Leone she would move into our household. Being in Britain makes it more expensive, but if it is possible she will perhaps do GCSEs or A-levels here. Children are often brought up by people other than their birth parents for other reasons too: when a partner dies; when a couple are trying to establish their lives, whether it be starting a business or taking a professional qualification; or at times of illness. The best known beneficiary of this tradition is Nelson Mandela, whose widowed mother accepted the offer of a Xhosa chief to raise and educate him.

Some commentators have referred to this system as "fostering". But fostering is really a temporary measure for a child until they can be placed with a family of their own. To whom they belong. That is the key to the difference between the cultures. By attempting to adopt him, Mrs Stopford sought to make him legally hers. Either he belonged to Mrs Masango or to her, but not to both. In that event, Mrs Masango asked for her son back.

Among Africans, Salome Stopford will be seen as a woman who broke faith with Sifiso's mother; who promised to help the family but instead tried to take away their greatest asset and hope - their child. Perhaps it was a genuine cultural misunderstanding. But it seems strange for anyone to live in South Africa, employ Africans in their home and yet know so little of their customs.

And what of my husband and I? Will the parents of the child we have offered to help read the reports and draw their own conclusions; think that although my roots are in West Africa I am really Western and now viewed with suspicion? Will they decline the opportunity because they're afraid they will never see their daughter again?

The best for Sifiso Masango would be for everyone to abide by the African customs. To allow him to live here and be educated with one family and to see his natural parents in the holidays. They could all watch him grow into a successful young man with pride. One day he would return to South Africa qualified in law, engineering, or computer technology to take care of his family and be part of his country's future. Instead he returns to the shack so openly scorned by journalists. And doubtless, once the interest has died, there he and his family will stay.

8 Aminatta Forna is writing 'The Motherhood Myth', an examination of the cultural roots of the mothering ideal

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