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A History of Ethiopia’s Newest Immigrants to the United States: Orphans

L’histoire des tout nouveaux migrants d’Ethiopie aux Etats-Unis : des orphelins
Solomon Addis Getahun
p. 185-200


Avant la Révolution éthiopienne de 1974, les adoptions d’enfants originaires d’Ethiopie (par des étrangers, des non-Ethiopiens) étaient peu courante, voire impensable. Cependant, de nos jours l’Ethiopie se range parmi les cinq premiers pays au monde d’où proviennent les enfants adoptés. Les Etats-Unis sont la première destination pour ces enfants. Cet article tente d’examiner les circonstances locales et globales qui ont amené ce nouveau phénomène – l’adoption d’enfant par des étrangers. Alors que l’institution de l’adoption a toujours existé parmi les différents groupes ethniques et nationalités en Ethiopie, même si sous différents noms, comme Gudi fetcha chez les Oromo ou Yetut-lij chez les Amhara, il était cependant jusqu’à peu très rare pour un parent éthiopien ou un membre de la famille de donner sa progéniture ou quelqu’un de sa famille à un étranger, un ferenj, pour adoption. Il s’agit donc d’une ‘nouvelle’ tendance migratoire qui, dans un sens, complète l’exode des Ethiopiens vers l’étranger depuis les années 1970.

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  • 1 For the various definition of sedet and sedetegna see, Leiper Kane (1990:577), Leslau (2005:58).
  • 2 For the history of Ethiopian immigrants and refugees in the U.S., see Metaferia and Shifferraw (199 (...)

1The landscape of Ethiopian studies, until very recently, was dominated by political history. Issues related to migration and family studies were often left at the back burner. Besides an academic oversight, there were socio-economic and cultural variables that contributed to the omission. For instance, until the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution, international migration and refugeeism were almost unknown in Ethiopia. According to Peter Koehn, prior to the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution “most Ethiopians were unfamiliar with the very concept of a 'refugee' and repelled by the idea of moving abroad permanently” (Koehn, 1991: 273). The official language, Amharic, does not have words that denote the English words, “immigrant” and “refugee”. Amharic uses the word “Sidetegna” for both refugee and immigrant. However, sidetegna also implies rootlessness, helplessness and often associated with a person who is exiled as a punishment for his crime and thus refers to a person who left his/her residence instead of country1. Until after the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution, to be called a refugee or immigrant was an insult, as it implied rootlessness and helplessness. These days, however, the presence of Ethiopian refugees and immigrants in large numbers in various parts of the world, especially in countries like the United States and Israel, has resulted in change of attitude toward sedet and sedetegnat. It also encouraged Ethiopian as well as Israeli scholars to chart Ethiopian migration and refugee history. While studies that deal with almost every aspect of the Ethiopian-Israeli community is available, research into the Ethiopian-Americans is in its infancy2; and when it comes to Ethiopian orphans in the U.S., there is none.

  • 3 In pre-revolution Ethiopian society, which is patriarchal and hierarchical, children’s place is at (...)

2Family studies (here family refers to an extended family), especially children, were absent from the academic discourse in Ethiopia until recently. Richard Pankhurst, in his book, A Social History of Ethiopia, noted, “early historical data on children in Ethiopia is so scant that it is almost as though they were neither seen nor heard” (1990: 3). In the same vein, Steven Kaplan in his article, “Seen but not Heard,” besides explaining the invisibility of children in Ethiopian studies, pointed out that “despite the existence of a considerable body of scholarly literature concerning many aspects of Ethiopian culture, social history remains a relatively neglected field . . . the most elementary facts concerning the basic units of Ethiopian society have usually been ignored by historians” (1997: 539)3. In light of the lacuna of historical essays on family, children etc, further research is needed to get a better understanding of child-adoption locally, in Ethiopia; and the international child adoption, which Richard H. Weil dabbed, “The Quiet Migration” (1984).

Ethiopian child adoption, the local

3John Beckstrom, who examined Ethiopian traditional adoption practices in light of the Civil Code of 1960, indicates, “forms by which children born outside a family unit are taken into the family have existed since time immemorial in Ethiopia. These forms have varied depending upon the ethnic, religious and regional groupings involved. The relationships created range from rather loose affirmations of close friendship and mutual interest to complete assimilation of the outsider as if he had been born within the family” (1972: 145). The author also notes that “The customary forms of Ethiopian adoption have one prominent similarity. Generally speaking, they do not have as a primary purpose the provision of homes for orphans . . . The reasons for this lack of cultural focus on the welfare of the child in an adoptive situation are not easy to find. But it can be speculated that homeless children without known family ties seldom existed in the rural, village environment that constituted all of Ethiopia until the turn of the [20th] century” (1972: 145). A child or children, who lost parents, will always have a relative or relatives who will claim them. However, Beckstrom argues that as urban centers like Addis Ababa emerged and as rural-urban migration transpired, at the turn of the 20th century, it is not uncommon to find orphans in urban centers. Usually, urban centers loosen kinship ties. In the meantime, due to the increasing commercialization of labor, some of the children can support themselves as “boys” and coolies while other become beggars. Due to the aforementioned circumstances, foster care, as known in the Western world, did not exist in Ethiopia until recently.

  • 4 In the Euro-American society, “adoption “and “fosterage,” designate two different relationships wit (...)

4Donald Levine, in his book, Greater Ethiopia, indicates the existence of child adoption among the various ethnic-groups in pre-Revolution Ethiopia. For instance, among the Amhara, in addition to social relations that are “organized through a number of routinized forms that are independent of the inexorable institutional claims of kinship, household, seigniory, and parish... there are a number of widely utilized forms of voluntary dyadic personal relationships, including those of the godparents- child, adoptive parent-child, friendship, guarantor-guarantee, confessor- confessee, and the like” (2000: 117). Yet, we do not know the manner and circumstances that such relationships are entered into, or what sort of place a certain relationship will fit into the hierarchical mould of the Amhara household, family, social system etc4. Nevertheless, one thing is apparent. Among the pre-revolution Amhara society, a person’s socio-economic and politico-military standing will be measured by the number of dependents (including slaves, servants, children, relatives etc.) he/she has. A man’s power in the Amhara society, said Levine, “is based on the number of persons who are dependant on him, whom he can mobilize in time of need on the basis of favors granted or promised” (2000: 125). From here, one can infer that adoption is a sort of client-patron relationship. Adoption also reveals that the relationship between the adoptee and the adopter is of a win- win; and that the existence of such arrangements among the Amhara makes the society and the system under which it operates open to strangers and thus all inclusive. Here, openness and inclusiveness refers to social mobility within the system and accommodation and or acceptance of strangers respectively.

  • 5 See for instance, Pearce (1831: 171-172).
  • 6 For understanding the role of kinship and lineage in Ethiopian society, see Crummey (1980; 1983); E (...)

5While “godparents-child”, “friendship”, “guarantor-guarantee”, and “confessor-confessee”, entail an earlier acquaintance in the relationship, “adoptive parent-child,” associations may or may not. Although giving up one’s offspring is uncommon, there are exceptions. In dire circumstances, the parent leaves his/her child to a non-relative. In this circumstance, the parent leaves the child at the doorsteps of a stranger’s house or at the gates of the enclosure. While doing this, the parent will be accompanied by a close friend or relative so that the latter can serve as a witness if and when the need for one arises. In this instance, the person who is leaving his/her child and the prospective adopter do not know each other but may live in the same locality. Thus, though the adopting parent does not know the parent/s of the child, it is customary to adopt the child as one’s own. While the adopting parent often considers the event as God’s will and gladly accepts the child, the community considers such benevolence more than a charity. It is viewed as life saving, metadeg, for the stranger had saved the life of the child from potential attack by predatory animals such as hyenas, and from death as a result of neglect5. Reluctance to adopt such a child, however, is viewed by the community as cruel and unbecoming of a God- fearing person. There are also occasions in which a person from a distant place can enter into an “adoptive parent-child” relationship. In this situation, the person can be of a different ethnic origin and of a distant place, yesew ager sew. This stranger will seek the bond out of the need for an affiliation, zimdina, so that he/she will not remain “rootless” or a “nobody” in his/her new home. In Ethiopia, having kinship ties, fictive or otherwise, is very important as it provides identity and sense of belonging6.

  • 7 For childbirth, child rearing and parent-child relation, see Kaplan (1997: 539-553); Hogan, Berhanu (...)
  • 8 In order to be ordained a priest, aside from other criterions and obligations, has to follow the Qu (...)

6In addition to the aforementioned circumstances, married couples who are unable to have children can opt to adopt, across all ethnic groups. Children in Africa in general, and in Ethiopia in particular, are considered assets. They help on farms and look after cattle. When parents get older, it is the responsibility of the children to take care of them. This is especially more prevalent for females than males. A man could always remarry a younger wife who can take care of him while it would be difficult for an aged woman to marry a younger male. Thus, women depend more on their children at an old age than men. Through marriage, children also bring more family bonding thereby enhancing parents' position in society. It is through children that the community/village remembers the parents. As the Ethiopian adage has it, “a man without children is like a tree without roots”. Due to the socio-economic significance associated with children, a woman who is unable to bear children is divorced, though the source of infertility could be the husband. On the other hand, women who give birth to as many children as possible are highly regarded in the community. In a country like Ethiopia where medical facilities are scarce and the technology to determine fertility is unavailable or even unknown, the woman is always the culprit7. Such women are often divorced. But divorce can only happen if the couple’s marriage is not a religious one (civil or municipal marriages are introduced during the Italian occupation and mostly confined to the urban elite). In what are called “religious marriages”, priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church officiate the ceremony at church. An example of a religious marriage is the Qurban. In the Qurban marriage, the bride and groom will take the Holy Communion together. Such marriages are for life. The couple cannot annul their marriage except by a special dispensation of the Patriarch8. Either due to this religious commitment or as a result of understanding between the spouses, the couple might decide to adopt a child rather than get a divorce. As Beckstrom notes, “adoptions transpire between two families for the purpose of giving the adoptive family an heir and someone to provide comfort and care in old age. The natural or biological family of the child receives, in return for the child, immediate gifts and long-range socio- political ties to the adoptive family” (1972: 145). Often, the process of adoption among the Amhara involves the adoptive parent dipping a thumb or breast in a pot of honey and the child or adopted person sucking the thumb or breast—symbolizing a parent-child relationship. Therefore, individuals adopted in such ways were known as yetut-lij (breast child) or yemar-lij (honey child). The process is always followed by feasting.

7As among the Amhara, the Oromos have rules that define and regulate the place of children and adoption. The Gada system, by which the Oromos governed themselves for centuries, recognizes and organizes children in an age-grade system called luba. Each luba is separate from the other age- group by eight years; and an Oromo child has to pass through eleven cycles or stages. Membership into a luba is regulated in two ways. A child whose father’s class did not complete the fatherhood ritual is not permitted to join a luba. The other rule is that a child can enter into a luba only if it is five- grades or forty years behind the father. Nevertheless, if there are children born before the father went through the fatherhood ceremony, the children were abandoned. In reality, however, such child or children were sent “away to other tribes or have them adopted by families with legitimate fathers” (Levine, 2000: 133-134). Such children are known among the Oromo as Gudi-fetcha or mogessa (Beckstrom, 1972: 146-147). With the assimilation of the Oromo into the Amhara society and culture or vise- versa, the differences between the Oromo and Amhara practices of adoption seem to have been less pronounced.

  • 9 See Mekuria (2007: 117, 121-123, 126-128); Haile (2002).

8Like the Amhara, the institution of Gudi-fetch is inclusive. A total stranger can become a full-fledged member of the Oromo community through adoption. An instance of this is the very well known story of the Ethiopian king, Susenyos, otherwise known as Malak Sagad III (1572-1632). It is said that before he became king of kings of Ethiopia in 1606, he was forced to flee. His brothers, who were envious of him, did not want him to become emperor. Knowing their intention, Susenyos fled the royal court for the nearby Oromo chief, seeking protection. The Oromo chief adopted the young Susenyos as his son, Gudi-fetch. When he was of age, Susenyos asked the blessings of his adopted father so that he could regain his royal title. The Oromo chief instructed a group of luba to accompany their brother. With their help, Susenyos defeated his rivals and sized power. For their help, Susenyos gave land to the various luba. Today, the land given to these luba are identified as Metcha, Machakel, Yilmana and Densa, all of which are found in the Gojjam province, the heart of the Amhara-land, in northwestern Ethiopia9.

9However, these days adoption in Ethiopia has taken a different turn. It has become part of the new trend in Ethiopia, migration to foreign lands.

International adoption from Ethiopia - the silent migration

  • 10 The Euro-American practice of transnational adoption, for this part, is a fairly recent practice. T (...)

10So far migration studies, both in Ethiopia and other countries, have been focused on adults. The lacuna of information on adoption in Ethiopia can be attributed to different yet interrelated factors. One of the factors, as indicated earlier, was the lack of attention given to matters related to children. The other reason, however, is the dearth of information that deals with adoption. Until the 1960s, where the government tried to codify adoption practices in Ethiopia, all legal matters were looked into by local judges known as Wambers. The central government had no authority over them. In fact, throughout the pre-1930s period, Ethiopia had been a decentralized state where each province, teglay-gizat, was ruled by a local magnet over whom the nugese-negest (king of kings) had little or no authority. The regional lord was a hereditary ruler who could be a nigus (king), ras (the head of the army), dejazmach (commander of the front) etc. Therefore, there was no or very little documentation, except the oral tradition, that discusses adoption in Ethiopia10.

  • 11 Complied from: United States Department of Homeland Security (2009).

11These days, evidences suggest that Africa, though not a major supplier, is also becoming an alternative source for child adoption. Of the African countries, Ethiopia is the single largest provider of children for adoption to American families. For instance, in 2002, from a total of 337 African children adopted by U.S. families, 102 children were from Ethiopia. In 2007 and 2008, American families adopted a total of 1748 and 2315 children from Africa respectively. Of these African children, more than two-thirds were Ethiopians11.

Table 1. No. of Ethiopian Children Adopted by American Parents

Table 1. No. of Ethiopian Children Adopted by American Parents

12Yet, the question is what has transpired in Ethiopia since the 1990s that brought such a change? During Haile Sellassie’s era (1930-1974) and Ethiopia under the Dergue, the military junta that ruled the country between 1975 and 1991, child adoption from Ethiopia was unthinkable due to cultural and ideological reasons. While this was an institutional issue, culturally Ethiopians were averse to the idea of giving up their children to foreigners. In fact, in pre-revolution Ethiopia and to some degree during the revolution, Ethiopians of rural Ethiopia were often afraid of the ferenji, a common name given to all Euro-Americans. The above question is important because while adult migration is often based on individual or family decisions, foreign child adoption involves two governments and non- governmental agencies. Obviously the child, who is the immigrant, was not consulted. The practice of transnational child adoption also mirrors the power play between the richer and poorer countries or the nature of the north-south relationship. All these will compel us to examine developments that brought attitudinal and institutional changes in Ethiopia regarding transnational adoption.

  • 12 For the civil war in Ethiopia, see Tareke (2009); Young (1997).
  • 13 See Marcus (2002: 198-199, 212-213).

13Between 1960 and 1991, Ethiopia was in a civil war, one of the longest civil wars in Africa. The war was fought between the Ethiopian government and the various liberation movements, especially the Eritrean liberation fronts, and various political groupings12. While the Eritrean fronts wanted independence from Ethiopia, the political groupings desired to usher in a democratic Ethiopia. For one of the poorest countries in Africa, where an average daily income was less than $ 0.50 and the per-capita income was around $ 110 (The World Bank, 2001), the war that cost the country an average of $ 1,000,000 a day, was devastating. The country’s army ballooned from 40,000 in the 1960s to more than half a million by late 1980s. By 1988, Ethiopia’s military budget accounted for 54 per cent of the government’s revenue13. The war left many children without a father. More than often, be it in rural or urban Ethiopia the father is the main breadwinner.

  • 14 For a detailed and firsthand account of the famine and resettlement, see Giorgis (1989).

14Moreover, in 1984 famine struck the country14. So sever was the famine, it got global attention that resulted, beside other things, in mobilizing global famine relief through Band-Aid, one of the largest musical events for famine relief aid. The socialist government, which was embarrassed by this development, was forced to let in international relief aid agencies into the country. For the first time in the country’s history (save the period of Italian occupation, 1936-1941), the rural population was massively exposed to Euro-Americans. These ferenjis were helping, providing food, clothes and shelter (tents). The government’s resettlement program, which involved the resettlement of millions of peasants from their domicile to fertile parts of the country, further necessitated the presence and engagement of non-governmental international aid agencies in Ethiopia. One of the problems of this settlement program was that families, including children, were often separated.

  • 15 For the history of the Red Terror and other violations of human rights, see Amnesty International ( (...)
  • 16 For a comprehensive understanding of the Ethiopian revolution, See Tiruneh (1993); Haile-Selassie ( (...)
  • 17 See Metaferia and Shifferraw (1991); Getahun (2007b).
  • 18 See Addis Zamen (Ethiopian Amharic language daily newspaper) of October 10, 2003; see also Tadesse (...)

15It should be noted that during the Red Terror, Qay Shibr15, which roughly took place between 1977 and 1979, one of the most traumatic periods in the history of Ethiopia, the Dergue, and its allies killed tens of thousands of people, mainly the educated youth and urban dwellers. The period also witnessed the imprisonment and torture of hundreds of thousands of people who were suspected of being “counter-revolutionaries” or sympathizers of counter-revolutionaries and “fifth-columnist”. The government also banned peaceful demonstrations and other forms of expression of ideas16. Those who survived left Ethiopia for the neighboring countries, mainly Sudan, seeking refuge. From there, the U.S. government and other countries resettled these Ethiopian refugees17. Today, Ethiopia receives more than $ 400 million by way of remittance. However, unofficial sources put the figure at more than a billion dollars18. In addition to the remittance sent to Ethiopia which is making a big difference, the presence of thousands of Ethiopians in America, on its part, has created a greater awareness about Ethiopia and Ethiopians among the American public. According to the U.S. Census and Homeland Security there are around 100,000 Ethiopians in the U.S. (U.S. Department of Justice, 1999).

16Ethiopia is also one of the countries in Africa that has been afflicted by the HIV-AIDS epidemic. Yet in the period under discussion, 1970s-1990s, the country’s health service was almost non- existent. Health expenditure between 1990 and 1995 was 1.7 percent of the GDP. In the same period, population per physician ratio was 35,051 while population per hospital bed was 4,141. Life expectancy at birth is 49 years. The country has been identified as one of the highest HIV-AIDS affected parts of the world. According to a report during the latter part of the 20th century, there were 9.3 HIV positive individuals per 100 adults (The World Bank, 1998). By the beginning of the 1990s, the virus matured and people began dying in larger numbers. Most of the deceased were the younger ones. One major consequence was the phenomenon of role reversal. Although the young were expected to take care of their parents – a social security in countries like Ethiopia – today many grandparents are compelled to look after their grandchildren for their parents have died due to HIV-AIDS.

  • 19 According to the Voice of America, VOA, there were 140 million orphans in the world in 2009. In the (...)

17Therefore, due to the continuous wars, the periodic drought that triggers instant famine and the onslaught of HIV-AIDS and other diseases, the culturally enshrined safety-net (taking care of your parents, neighbors and villagers etc.) that had been in place and by which Ethiopians used to help each other is in extreme distress. Unlike earlier times families, neighbors and acquaintances who used to help (by way of adoption etc) or were willing to help are themselves in need. Currently, while Ethiopian government sources put the number of HIV-AIDS infected children at 1.5 million, WHO, however, believes that almost more than twice that figure exist, 2.8 million. Meanwhile, in the same year (2010) some 250,000 households were headed by children between the ages of 9 and 19 years old. In 2007, the number of child headed household was 77,000 (AFP, 2008). In the meantime, American sources indicate that the number of orphans in Ethiopia is 5.5 million19.

18The aforementioned bleak reality coupled with the government change that took place in Ethiopia in 1991 (the military regime had been overthrown by a coalition of forces, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front) paved the way for transnational adoption in Ethiopia. Unlike the previous socialist regime, the EPRDF government is “friendly” to America and open to the “Western world”. While the previous regime restricted visa for international travel, especially to Western countries on ideological grounds, the current regime not only facilitates travel but encourages it as well.

19Until 2010, there was no law that specifically regulated non- governmental agencies, local as well as international that were involved in adoption etc. This and the relative democracy encouraged the establishment of non-governmental and non-profit organizations, including adoption agencies, in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, the ongoing economic transformation in China and some of the hurdles associated with child adoption from that country (BBC, 2009) and the on-and-off political rancor with Russia (Barry, 2009) (both are major sources for adoption to American families) made it difficult for American families to adopt children from these countries. On the other hand, according to The New York Times:

Ethiopia’s model centers for orphans, run by American agencies, with an efficient adoption system... made it possible for... [Americans and others] to file paperwork on Labor Day and claim... [Ethiopian child or children] at Christmas... [Besides] at roughly $ 20,000, the process [of adoption] was affordable compared with other foreign adoptions, and free of the bribes that are common in some countries.
(Gross and Connors, 2007).

20The New York Times article also best summarizes the circumstances that facilitate adoption in Ethiopia. It says,

It is no wonder, given these advantages, that Ethiopia, a country more often associated by Americans with drought, famine and conflict, has become a hot spot for international adoption.

  • 20 Today, the rate of Ethiopian orphans adopted by American families is 6 children a day. In addition (...)

21One has to also note the grip of Hollywood and other major news media on American society and elsewhere, and its ability to change public opinion. The adoption of an Ethiopian orphan by Angelina Jolie put Ethiopia on the spotlight (Keteyian, 2010). After Angelina Jolie adopted from Ethiopia in 2005, the number of children adopted by American families from Ethiopia almost quadrupled. In 2004, it was less than 300. But after a year, the number of children adopted in Ethiopia was much larger (See Table 1). Therefore, a combination of national and international factors contributed to the internationalization of adoption in Ethiopia; and once it has started, the snowball effect continues to further accelerate the silent migration20.


22Though adoption was a common cultural practice throughout Ethiopia, adoption of Ethiopian children by non-Ethiopians is a new phenomenon that has become common since the early 1990s. So much so, Ethiopia has become one of the major sources for children adopted by foreigners, especially American parents. However, compared to China, Russia, Guatemala, etc., who send tens of thousands of children to America annually, the number of Ethiopian children adopted by American parents is very small. Despite the limited number of children adopted from Ethiopia, however, adoption has evolved into becoming an industry that involves international and local agencies. There are more than two dozen orphanages in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, which, some of them, also serve as adoption agencies. The proliferation of local agencies, the local and international media and the socio-economic predicament the country is in, by and large, has familiarized Ethiopians to the practice and benefits of international adoption. An American adoptive parent spends some $ 20,000 per adoption – a huge sum in a country where the daily income is less than $ 1.00 (Rey, 2011). In addition to challenging cultural practices of adoption, international adoption, as the media as well as Ethiopian government reports indicate, is rife with corruption – a development that marred the good intention of adopting parents while endangering the welfare of HIV-AIDS orphans.

23The internationalization of adoption has set a new parameter that never existed earlier. Child adoption was an affair beyond two families, neighbors, citizens of the same nation with common socio-economic and cultural practices. It is now an affair that brings together two or more individuals or families with little or no common cultural, historical, religious etc., bond. In addition adoption involves two states with very little communality between them yet reflecting the power play: the rich vis-à-vis the poor country, the developed West vis-à-vis the developing world etc. But, the less fortunate nation/state would not let go its subjects, children, easily for it does not want to be portrayed as a country that “exports” children. As Barbara Yngvesson notes:

the giving nation is positioned differently in contemporary adoption rhetoric, as vigilant over the loss of its most precious national resources-children-rather than as a country that has only children to give away. (Yngvesson, 2002: 229).

24In international adoption, as in the local, the subject (the child to be adopted) is silent, he/she has no say. However, international adoption has another drawback. In local adoption, the “giver” and “receiver”, often know each other. The biological parent is always welcomed to visit her/his son or daughter. The child knows where he/she is from and probably there will be no cultural barrier between the place of origin and adoption. However, in Euro-American adoption, there is the “clear cut” relationship between the adopting and biological family through “legal fiction”, the law. This, combined with the physical distance between country of origin and adoption, enforces

loss and the transformation of loss into a ‘clean break’... that forms the ground for starting anew. The clean break separates the child from everything that constitutes her grounds for belonging as a child to this family and this nation, while establishing her transferability to that family and that nation. With a past that has been cut away – an old identity that no longer exists – the child can be re- embedded in a new place, almost as though he or she ever moved at all. (Yngvesson, 2003:7).

25The question is then “what kind of identity will an adopted Ethiopian child have in America?” – A country that defines race in binary terms. The author witnessed American parents with an adopted Ethiopian child seeking out Ethiopian communities in America, trying to reconnect their child with its roots. Such issues, the identity/ies of an adopted child, are something beyond the scope of this paper and it is too early to delve into.

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1 For the various definition of sedet and sedetegna see, Leiper Kane (1990:577), Leslau (2005:58).

2 For the history of Ethiopian immigrants and refugees in the U.S., see Metaferia and Shifferraw (1991); Getahun (2007a); Akalou Wolde Micael. (1989); Bariagaber (1997).

3 In pre-revolution Ethiopian society, which is patriarchal and hierarchical, children’s place is at the bottom. They eat after their parents dined. They do not speak unless spoken to. Being meek and humble is the hallmark of a good child. In the same vein, in a literary culture that was dominated by political history and hagiography often eulogizing the ruler vis-à-vis the ruled, the victor vis-à-vis the vanquished, the powerful vis-à-vis the weak and men-vis-à-vis women, children are the least concern. They are more than often “invisible.”

4 In the Euro-American society, “adoption “and “fosterage,” designate two different relationships with different levels of legal responsibility. In Ethiopian society, however, Beckstrom (1972) indicated that “fosterage” does not exist simply because there was always some relative who will claim the child, at least until the widespread development of urbanization and rural-urban migration.

5 See for instance, Pearce (1831: 171-172).

6 For understanding the role of kinship and lineage in Ethiopian society, see Crummey (1980; 1983); Ellis (1976).

7 For childbirth, child rearing and parent-child relation, see Kaplan (1997: 539-553); Hogan, Berhanu and Hailemariam (1999).

8 In order to be ordained a priest, aside from other criterions and obligations, has to follow the Qurban type of marriage. If his wife dies, he is not to remarry but to become a monk. But, if he remarries, he no longer serves as a priest and cannot administer priestly functions. He becomes a Debtra with a title of a Merigeta. The same applies to his wife. Upon the death of her husband, she becomes a nun. In extreme cases, the widowed becomes a hermit and joins one of the many monastic centers in the country. For other forms of marriage such as political, see Sereke-Brhan (2002).

9 See Mekuria (2007: 117, 121-123, 126-128); Haile (2002).

10 The Euro-American practice of transnational adoption, for this part, is a fairly recent practice. Transnational child adoption became significant after the 1940s. During this time, war which devastated Europe was the major source of children for adoption. After two decades, Europe’s position was taken over by Asia. By 1970s, however, Latin America also became a major supplier of children for adoption. See, Weil (1984: 276-277).

11 Complied from: United States Department of Homeland Security (2009).

12 For the civil war in Ethiopia, see Tareke (2009); Young (1997).

13 See Marcus (2002: 198-199, 212-213).

14 For a detailed and firsthand account of the famine and resettlement, see Giorgis (1989).

15 For the history of the Red Terror and other violations of human rights, see Amnesty International (1978); Tadesse (1998); Tola (1989).

16 For a comprehensive understanding of the Ethiopian revolution, See Tiruneh (1993); Haile-Selassie (1997).

17 See Metaferia and Shifferraw (1991); Getahun (2007b).

18 See Addis Zamen (Ethiopian Amharic language daily newspaper) of October 10, 2003; see also Tadesse (2008).

19 According to the Voice of America, VOA, there were 140 million orphans in the world in 2009. In the same year, about 5,000 Ethiopian children had been adopted throughout the world (Heinlein, 2010).

20 Today, the rate of Ethiopian orphans adopted by American families is 6 children a day. In addition to the U.S., the usual countries of migration such as Australia are also adopting children from Ethiopia. Ethiopian children account for 13 per cent of children (300) adopted by Australians annually. See White (2010).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1. No. of Ethiopian Children Adopted by American Parents
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k
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Solomon Addis Getahun, « A History of Ethiopia’s Newest Immigrants to the United States: Orphans »Journal des africanistes, 81-2 | 2011, 185-200.

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Solomon Addis Getahun, « A History of Ethiopia’s Newest Immigrants to the United States: Orphans »Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 81-2 | 2011, mis en ligne le 14 janvier 2016, consulté le 29 septembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Solomon Addis Getahun

Assistant Professor of African History, Central Michigan University, Department of History

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