Recently, at the Nigerien Bible School where I teach, we were discussing “what are a Christian’s responsibilities to his or her neighbors and community?”. When citing James 1:27 that pure religion in God’s eyes includes taking care of widows and orphans in their affliction, one of my rural students burst out “But there are no orphans in Niger!”
While technically untrue, culturally, the young man was correct. When we Westerners think of orphans, the lack of a father and mother is only the most obvious aspect of the definition. Embedded in our understanding of “orphanhood” is that of a young child without ANY family who will take care of him or her.
In Niger, such a notion as being without a family is virtually unthinkable. Families are large with the average Nigerien woman having 7 births during her lifetime. Each Nigerien is blessed with brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins—and since we’re in a polygamous society you can multiply these numbers by 2 or 3 for “step-families”. But relations go further than blood alone. Whether because of access to schooling, apprenticeships or other reasons (often economic), many Nigerien children spend long periods living in homes other than those of their biological parents’ house, though usually there’s a family tie involved. In many cases theses visiting children are treated identically to a natural-born son or daughter in the host family’s home, as that’s how the culture sees them.
Missionary Steve Saint (the son of missionary pilot Nate Saint who was killed in 1956 by an Ecuadorian jungle tribe) writes in “Projecting Poverty Where it Doesn’t Exist” that well-meaning Westerners often “create orphans” in foreign societies when we build orphanages that offer free housing, food and schooling in countries where all those things are difficult to obtain for the poor. A child’s guardian and even a natural parent may conclude that it’s better to place their child in such a facility than to try to take care of him or her themselves. In some cases, we’re “incentivizing” the abandonment of well-understood societal responsibilities. While it’s good to help meet a child’s physical needs, can any orphanage replace the love and sense of identity that comes from a caring family?
Then there’s the nasty underside of orphanages: those whose primary purpose is to enrich its operators. I’ve been told of Haitian pastors who literally fight over new orphans because each child represents a dollar “profit” in overhead income to the pastor. Orphanages which are financed by wealthy foreign churches may be legitimate ministries of compassion or they may be designed to support the lifestyle of a few hucksters in religious garb. It’s perilous territory for the best-intentioned, but uninformed Western Christian.
The creation and operation of orphanages is a sensitive issue here. There are, in fact, few orphanages in Islamic Niger for precisely the reasons mentioned above. Additionally, Muslim leaders here have linked Christian orphanages with the “forced” conversion of children who would otherwise be raised in Muslim homes. The orphanages that do exist in Niger primarily serve children who appear to have been abandoned and most have been placed in their care by Nigerien courts. Frequently, though, a family member surfaces to claim the child. In many cases, the relative decides it is better to leave the child in the institution, but the family now comes and regularly visits the child and takes him or her home on holidays and weekends.
My concluding point is that the care of orphans is a cultural issue and it needs to be viewed through appropriate cultural lenses. What may be an ideal solution in some places may be totally wrong in others. We shouldn’t let Western standards and practices be considered as the only “Christian” answer to orphan care. Particularly, we should encourage local Christian responses to their comprehension of the problem and thus strengthen our brothers and sisters’ ministry capacities.