The Tragedy of Little Kezia: Race and Adoption Politics in Africa This story begins on August 4, 2005 when Kezia (in photo) was born. She was abandoned, and six weeks later a good Samaritan dropped her off at Happy Life Children’s Home in Nairobi. She was a far cry from the photo here. Kezia was horribly sick with fever and a cough, and emaciated. About then a friend, Louise Turnbridge (those who weren’t in diapers in the 1990s will remember her as a regular correspondent’s voice on the BBC) got to meet Kezia at the children’s home – and fell in love with her. She cajoled and pushed, until Kezia was treated for pneumonia. She visited her many times with her son Gisa, and decided to take Kezia in as a foster parent. There was tension on the day Louise turned up to take Kezia home. The orphanage director demanded she pay a “contribution” to the home. Louise was upset because, she thought she was being made to buy Kezia. By Charles Onyango-Obbo
At Louise’s home, Kezia recovered her health and put on weight rapidly. Gisa took to his new sister, and would take her to his school to meet his class. He played with Kezia a lot and learnt to feed her. Louise fostered Kezia for three months and then applied to court for her adoption. Nothing happened. A social worked at Little Angels (the adoption society, not to be confused with Happy Life, the children’s home) told Louise that she had bumped into a senior state official who told her that ‘that baby from Kiambu’ had to go back. Toward the end of the year, Louise heard that Kezia might have a living parent... October 2005
Gisa and Kezia eat guavas. March 2006 In February 2006, Happy Life sent a letter to Little Angels saying the children’s parents were in prison for her neglect and were asking to have her back. Little Angels were surprised, and continued to do the paperwork for Kezia’s adoption. Happy Life then sent Louise a text message asking her to take Kezia for a committal hearing at the home conducted by a visiting magistrate, a key part of the adoption process. The story of Kezia’s life was about to change – but no one would have guessed how dramatically.
At the Coast December 2005 The files at Happy Life didn’t have much information about Kezia. Louise decided to do her own investigations. In Kiambu court, the files showed that Joseph Thuo and Leah Mathiu, believed to be Kezia’s parents, were convicted of child neglect and ill-treatment of a baby called Grace Nyambura (she was named Kezia by Louise) and sentenced to two months in prison. The court had issued no orders in respect of the child. Investigations from the couple’s village showed that Thuo was a drunkard who could not hold down a job. His wife had left him. He had also split up with Leah, described by the police as a “loiterer”, after Kezia’s birth. Leah had had another child who died. She had abandoned Kezia several times after birth, until finally dumping her farther away at the roadside, where she was picked and taken to Happy Life. Six months later, the adoption paperwork hadn’t come back from the courts.
Little Angels, the adoption society, sent Louise an email on May 30 th 2006. It said the Kiambu District Children's Officer had telephoned Happy Life ordering them to return Kezia immediately to Kiambu. She was 10 months old. Louise agreed to take Kezia to Kiambu two weeks later. The most difficult part followed – telling Gisa that Kezia would have to leave, and she wasn’t sure she would return. Gisa was inconsolable. He cried endlessly, and asked his mother: “But mum, how do we know they will look after her? What if they abandon her again? On Friday June 16, 2006 – the day of the African child! – Louise and Gisa Kezia took to the Kiambu District Children’s Officer’s office in Kiambu. Thuo and Leah were waiting. They signed papers acknowledging Kezia’s handover. Louise handed the child to Leah, but she refused to hold her. They drove with the couple to their village in Kibichio. There was nobody waiting to greet them. There was no preparation to receive Kezia either. No food, no milk (except that which Louise had brought), and no place for her sleep. It was difficult for Louise to peel herself from Kezia and leave. So she hang around settling her in until late evening.
Gisa and Kezia June 2009 Louise went back to Kibichio two weeks later to visit Kezia. She was shocked by what she saw. She had lost weight and her skin was covered in insect bits and rashes. She was silent, withdrawn, and her body felt stiff. She did not want to stand and put weight on her feet as she had been doing before. The one thing that hadn’t changed, is that she knew Louise. She touched Louise’s hair and whispered “Mama”. When they were driving off, she wailed. It was, Louise, says; “a desperate cry.” Louise went to the Kiambu District Children’s Officer‘s office to complain, and appeal to him to monitor Kezia. She followed later with daily calls. The only thing she succeed in doing was to irritate him.
Visiting Kezia became too painful for Louise, so she arranged for the social workers at Happy Life to do it on her behalf. She would send things like mosquito nets. The news about Kezia was not good, though. On July 21, 2006 Thou’s father called the children’s home, asking them to go and take away Kezia. The parents had been fighting and the child was often caught between them, he said. Leah had taken to sleeping with a knife under pillow. Thuo’s father Kamau wanted Leah and Kezia off his compound. One day, Leah upped and left Kezia behind with Thuo. Louise reported her concerns to the district children’s office again. The new children’s officer summoned Thuo and Leah, together with Louise, to discuss Kezia’s welfare. In the end, she told Louise to leave the family alone to sort out their problem. Upon returning from holiday in September, Louise called the district children’s officer, who told her she had gone to visit the couple and was surprised by the “hatred” between them. Louise also kept in touch with the chief police officer in Kibichio.
Louise took in Kezia, before the case of pop superstar Madonna’s adoption of baby Banda in Malawi. Madonna’s case demonstrated how a white person adopting an African child can turn controversial and emotional. There are those who resent it, because they feel the mzungus are taking advantage of “poor Africans” to take away their children. The cultural conservatives argue that an African child raised in a mzungu household would be “lost”. Maybe if Louise was better tuned to these tensions, it is a journey she would not have set out on. Or having done so, she might have bribed everyone in the system not to wreck the Kezia adoption plans. Now, all that doesn’t matter.
Louise called Kibichoi in November 2007. She was told that Kezia had died. Her grave in the banana garden is a small mound of earth, unmarked,, with a few plants growing over it. Every day thousands of children like Kezia die in Africa. This is one death, though, that didn’t have to happen because, at least, Kezia had a chance – even if it was not the chance her parents thought she should have. Louise sent me the materials of this story last year. Nearly every other couple of weeks I read it…and for some reason I can’t put a finger on why, with time, Kezia’s story reads more tragic. In a strange way, it sums up all the contractions, adversities, the hopes, crashed dreams, the odds, that define and explain our Africa today…