Individuals need structure, and so do societies. The framework differs from society to society, but no society can stand without a supporting structure of some kind.
Much of Africa is walking a high wire between two structures, and it is walking the wire without a net.
The old structure is formed of villages and families, and the new of governments and private organizations. One is falling away even before the other has been raised completely.
AIDS is tearing away at the ability of families and villages to support their children. Maybe you saw the Newsweek cover earlier this month: "10 Million Orphans."
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the AIDS epidemic, which is infecting millions in sub-Saharan Africa and killing 6,000 people a day. Many of those people are infected in their 20s and die in their 30s, leaving behind young children.
A couple of readers asked if I knew anything about adopting AIDS orphans. I didn't, so I started asking people who might know and combing through the Web for information.
Adoption obviously isn't the solution to this problem, but often when there are natural disasters, wars or other disruptions overseas, some Americans respond by adopting children from the area. Those children at least are helped.
This happened with war in the Balkans, and it happened with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. International adoption is popular.
The U.S. State Department keeps a tally of immigrant visas issued to orphans coming to the United States, so I looked at the numbers for the past decade. In 1998, the most recent year listed, there were 4,491 children from Russia, 4,206 from China and 1,829 from Korea. Most of the top 20 were countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe or Asia.
The only African country on the list, Ethiopia, sent 96 children to the United States that year. The Web site listed only the top 21 countries each year, and most years no African country was listed.
Given the relative difficulty of placing black children in this country, I wondered whether the numbers meant people were unwilling to adopt African children. But I know there are Americans who would do it, so I kept looking.
I found that Nigeria makes it difficult to adopt children internationally and even internally.
I called World Vision in Federal Way and spoke with Silas Kenala, the regional team leader for World Vision's aid programs in nine countries in Southern Africa.
Kenala was born in Malawi and says that adoption was not part of the culture. The extended family is expected to care for orphans. "The problem now is that the productive generation is dying, and that is putting pressure on grandparents."
The Newsweek article used a World Vision client as an example. AIDS killed 11 of the Ugandan woman's 13 children, and she was left to care for 22 grandchildren.
Kenala was in Zimbabwe last July and says he saw one cemetery in which all of the deceased died when they were between 19 and 37. In Zimbabwe, 25 percent to 30 percent of the population is HIV-positive. At that one cemetery, he says, there were 20 to 30 new graves in a week's time.
Margaret Schuler works out of World Vision's D.C. office and is the program officer for Uganda, the country that has done the most to combat the spread of AIDS. Her group does a lot of work with AIDS orphans, but she hadn't heard of children being adopted by people from other countries.
She says that nowadays, "there may be a 13-year-old child taking care of three or four younger children."
Children who should be in school have to find jobs, another setback to themselves and to their countries.
I searched the Web for adoption agencies that mentioned Africa and found one, All As One, a nonprofit organization run by Deanna Wallace Cox.
Cox, a Seattle native, grew up in the Northwest and graduated from Seattle Pacific University.
She worked for an organization that arranged adoptions of Ethiopian children. She noticed the vacuum in the rest of Africa, so in 1997 she started All As One.
"Traditionally in Africa, the extended family has been able to care for the children, so they don't have a mechanism in place. It is also a matter of national pride. They want to take care of their own children," she said. Even adoption within a country is rare.
"Ethiopia is really the only country up until this year that did any work with agencies and that has a system for adoption."
She has been working steadily to get laws changed, but the idea of adoption is so foreign that she has yet to place a child. Just last month she reached an agreement with the government of The Gambia that will allow her to arrange adoptions from that country, her first such arrangement. An agreement with Sierra Leone is a few months away.
"The old system that worked wonderfully before was based on extended family," she said, but now "the breadwinners are dying, and also Africa is becoming more urban." There is a nothing yet to take the place of the traditional village.
Cox has been working in international adoption for 17 years, and she has adopted children of her own - Indian, Korean, Ethiopian and African American.
She says there are fears shared by many developing countries that make international adoption complicated. "They wonder, why are we sending our children out of our country? Are they going to be slaves? Will they just be used?"
She suspects, too, that adoption organizations haven't pushed for adoptions from Africa. "A lot of adoption facilitators go into Eastern Europe or South America before they would go to Africa," she said. Some of them may fear Americans would be racist, but she says that isn't the case. She has had a number of inquiries since she put All As One on the Web.
Kenala makes frequent visits to Africa, so I asked him how people are dealing with the crisis. He said people are not weighted down by despair. "There is a feeling that, yes, we can do it," he said. "There is hope."
He also said that as poor countries, there are things that are out of their control. Often they are at the mercy of powerful countries that control international finances and whose companies control drug costs.
The Africans will have to rebuild their social structures themselves, and he noted many examples of them doing just that. They will have to find new ways to care for orphaned children, and if we can't just yet become parents to an African child, we should find new ways to become brothers and sisters to all Africans at this difficult time.
If you are interested in learning more, or helping, you can contact World Vision at 253-815-1000. All As One can be reached at 209-538-8540, or on the Web at www.all-as-one.org.
Jerry Large's column appears Sundays and Thursdays in the Scene section of The Seattle Times. You can reach him c/o The Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Phone: 206-464-3346. Fax: 206-464-2261. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org