Guest columnist : Mrs Daria Michel Scotti, Ethnopsychologist, Espace Adoption, Geneva, Switzerland, author of « D’un monde à l’autre » 1)
French-speaking childhood literature has been quite productive in books on adoption. However, no book that I know of has tackled this sensitive issue with an ethnological outlook, drawing a parallel between its various cultural expressions. I found essential to bridge this gap and to inform concerned young readers that being brought up by other parents than the parents of origin, is far from being an isolated fact proper to today’s Western families. “Crossing Worlds” (D’un monde à l’autre) 1) is thus a challenge to connect the situation of a boy born elsewhere and adopted here, with the one of many other children in Asia, Africa, America and Oceania. Let us take for example the case of child donation in French Polynesia.
Indigenous peoples in French Polynesia have the age-old practice of customary adoption. In Tahiti, the “fa’a’amu” adoption (meaning literally “giving to eat adoption”) has been in existence for so long that it is attested not only in the local oral tradition and cosmogony, but even in travel narratives by Europeans in the XVIIIth century. Its exact origin is not known, although its basic functions compare to the ones of other traditional adoption practices, notably in Africa : a child can be “given” with the agreement or on the initiative of the family council, in the presence of hardship in the parental couple, but also in exchange of a favour, to tie up or reinforce an alliance, or in response to barrenness. Traditionally, the fact of entrusting one’s child to a third person is often part of ritual exchange (what ethnologists call don and contre-don), that makes the receiver accountable towards the donor.
In Polynesian communities, children can be “booked” before their birth by third persons who will bring them up like their own. Adoption here engenders a triangular relationship between the biological parents, the adoptive parents, and the adoptee : the result being alliance as much as filiation. Moreover, these customs imply that the break-up between the child and his or her parents of origin is progressive and never complete : the child remains part of the community and the circle of relatives 2). At the Ellis Island, fosterage turns into adoption at the precise time when the child inherits land belonging to the foster family. He or she is bound to find a spouse outside the foster family, that considers him or her from then on as its member 3). It is unclear though whether the family name attribution, and the way to designate the adoptive parents, follow the same logics.
Jean Vital de Monléon 4) reports that today, 10 to 20% of this region’s children experience such a transfer, most of the time inside their extended family. For about 20 years, metropolitan adoptive parents have been integrated into the traditional child exchange circulation in Polynesia. According to Monléon’s observations, 40% of interethnic adoptions concern single mothers, with a Western lifestyle, and whose child was conceived out of wedlock. If traditional business is compatible with the statute of young mother, it is not the case of globalized trade demanding more training and availability, which is the case of tourism, a flourishing business in Polynesia.
The remaining 60% of interethnic adoption are also part of globalization and autonomization of the family unit : unlike in the past, the large traditional family cannot always cope when parental conflict or other hardship occur; the donation of a child outside local networks can be a solution never considered before. Last, it is not impossible that some parents hope, by tying themselves to a metropolitan family through adoption, to broaden their social circle. The cultural meaning of this tradition seems therefore to have undergone in-depth change along time, to adapt to the current the living conditions of Polynesians.
The result of these evolutions is a unique adoption procedure, that can be described as “intercultural” although taking place in the boundaries of the same nation. In the “fa’a’amu” adoption transmitted by customary law, biological parents give the child to an adoptive family they themselves choose. The child “donation” is thus supervised by a parental authority delegation (Délégation d'autorité parentale DAP), that the parents of origin can revoke any moment, with reasons justifying it. After two years, they sign a consent to adoption, simple or plenary. The procedure is similar to the one in use the Child Welfare (Aide sociale à l’enfance ASE) on the mainland, what differs is the opportunity given to Polynesian families to meet would-be adoptive parents and to keep in touch with the child, even in the case of plenary adoption.
In the past, customary law was indeed the sole rule of child donation in Polynesia : presently, French law is in application, but in the mark of a particular procedure adapted to the Polynesian context.
Filiation is a culturally marked and historically determined notion, whence the necessity to acknowledge its anthropological foundations and psychological implications. It cannot be reduced to the links of blood established by begetting, nor to its purely legal definition. It encompasses an unconscious and eminently particular dimension, that the subject has to elaborate all along his or her life story.
Crossing worlds? From one to another? From oneself to oneself? As many are the spaces to explore for the tama fai child, the twice born, as many overseas journeys and interior developments in the making.
Read the full article (PDF) (Fr)
1) Michel Scotti, D. & Kalonji (2008) Genève : la Joie de lire
2) Ghasarian, C. (1996) «Introduction à l’étude de la parenté». Paris : Editions du Seuil.
3) « L’adoption en Polynésie française et les métropolitains : de la stupéfaction à la participation », in : Leblic, I. (sous la dir.) «De l’adoption, des pratiques de filiation différentes» (2004) Paris : Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal (49-79).
4) Lallemand, S. (1993) «La circulation des enfants en sociétés traditionnelles : prêt, don, échange». Paris : L’Harmattan.
Link : Espace Adoption
Disclaimer : The editorial does not necessarily reflect the opinion of IDE Board and team.
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