Photo by Hamish Brown

In Conversation: Lemn Sissay On His New Book About Re-claiming the Ethiopian Heritage Stolen From Him by England’s Foster Care System

In 'My Name Is Why,' the 2019 PEN Pinter award winner passionately advocates for children in the institutional care system, and in turn tells a unique story of identity and the power in discovering one's heritage.

It took the author Lemn Sissay almost two decades to learn his real name. As an Ethiopian child growing up in England's care system, his cultural identity was systematically stripped from him at an early age. "For the first 18 years of my life I thought that my name was Norman," Sissay tells OkayAfrica. "I didn't meet a person of color until I was 10 years of age. I didn't know a person of color until I was 16. I didn't know I was Ethiopian until I was 16 years of age. They stole the memory of me from me. That is a land grab, you know? That is post-colonial, hallucinatory madness."

Sissay was not alone in this experience. As he notes in his powerful new memoir My Name Is Why, during the 1960s, tens of thousands of children in the UK were taken from their parents under dubious circumstances and put up for adoption. Sometimes, these placements were a matter of need, but other times, as was the case with Sissay, it was a result of the system preying on vulnerable parents. His case records, which he obtained in 2015 after a hardfought 30 year campaign, show that his mother was a victim of child "harvesting," in which young, single women were often forced into giving their children up for adoption before being sent back to their native countries. She tried to regain custody of young Sissay, but was unsuccessful.

Whether they end up in the foster system out of need or by mistake, Sissay says that most institutionalized children face the same fate of abuse under an inadequate and mismanaged system that fails to recognize their full humanity. For black children who are sent to white homes, it often means detachment from a culturally-sensitive environment. "There are too many brilliant people that I know who have been adopted by white parents for me to say that it just doesn't work," says Sissay. "But the problem is the amount of children that it doesn't work for."

Though it took several years for the writer and documentarian to discover his heritage due to the challenges he faced in the system, Sissay now calls himself a proud son of Ethiopia. "I am so proud to be Ethiopian, he says. "I travel anywhere in the world and there are Ethiopians who know my name. My name is Lemn, the boy whose name is 'why,' who was stolen from Ethiopia, who fought and found his way home and found his family through the revolution."

OkayAfrica caught up with the 2019 PEN Pinter Prize winner, ahead of his award ceremony which he shared with persecuted Ethiopian writer and activist Befeqadu Hailu.

Lemn Sissay 'My Name Is Why' book cover.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In the prologue of your book, you say that it's for your mother, father, aunts and uncles and also for Ethiopians, why did you dedicate this story to Ethiopians in particular?

I'm known in Ethiopia. I'm known to my people and I want them to know what happened to me. There are many ideas of what happened to me. This is the truth of the story. I wouldn't have to know how a child could be stolen from a country, stolen from a people, and I want them to see how it was done and see the evidence. Ethiopia was never colonized. It doesn't make it a better country than a country that was colonized, but I want to show them how deeply one of their own was affected and stolen.

What are your thoughts about the (now banned) common practice of people in the West, adopting Ethiopian children?

It's not a distant cousin from what happened to me. I was subject to the "missionary" gene.

My foster parents thought that they were saving a "poor babies from Africa." And when you do this, you often don't acknowledge that there are adults in Africa that are quite capable of saving their own children, and that I didn't need saving in the first place.

My mother just came to [England] and found herself pregnant and I was stolen from her. In Ethiopia right now they do not allow international adoptions to happen anymore. There is no land grab in Ethiopia for children, it has stopped because it became so vile, so offensive and ugly. Hotels would be filled with desperate [western] couples taking children, with parents in Ethiopia thinking that their children would be returning to them one day. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed is himself an adopting parent. When the leader of a country both stops international adoption and adopts himself, you know that you're in good hands and you know that the administration is seeing something ugly.

What did it mean for you to be able to reclaim your Amharic name? What is the power in a name, and how did it impact you on a personal level?

Well, when I saw my name written on my birth certificate and my legal name was Lemn Sissay, it became evident that my name was a piece of evidence, which indicated that I had been lied to. That one lie was part became part of a journey to discover the truth. So my name was a symbol of truth—a really tangible symbol of truth. If you lied to me about my name for 18 years, you imprisoned me as a child, you gave me to abusive foster parents. The only evidence I had was that you changed my name. And I had a piece of paper that said it. From that point onwards I would take my Amharic name because it's the only truth I've been told in those 18 years and I would begin my search. I'm a warrior, man.

It's heartbreaking to see how quickly your foster parents gave up on you. Can you talk about that experience and the lack of human empathy often shown to foster children in general?

Children do bad things and good things all of the time—it's part of what it means to be a child, yet when a foster child does something which is "bad," like take biscuits without saying please and thank you or comes in late, they are punished in a way—well I was punished in a way—like I was a threat to the family, a threat to the foundations of the family, to Christianity, and to the belief structure of the entire family, and that is unfair.

It was very naive. And I should say that a foster child will always pressurize the vulnerable cracks inside the relationship of the parents. But that is to say that any child, their own child, will also pressurize the cracks in their relationship. That's the nature of having a child, isn't it? They made me into a fall guy for their own problems and that happens, not through them being necessarily evil, but incredibly naive, confused and angry. It's always easy to blame the child. Society does this—they look at children in chaos, street children is a great example, as a problem waiting to happen rather than a solution that is the next generation. And those children need help and love and care and attention. Not abuse.

Adoption works, fostering works, but the thing about adopting is that children can cause us a problem, that's what being a child is about, but stay with them. The betrayal that happened with me is that my foster parents cut me off. They said they were my mother and father forever and they trained me to say their name. They trained me to love them. And then the betrayal was that they cut me out in a guillotine fashion. It was cold.

Photo by Hamish Brown

How do you think being a Black child, on top of all of that, contributed to it and how are Black children affected by the foster care system?

Let me just say first, that there are too many brilliant people that I know who have been adopted by white parents for me to say that it just doesn't work. But the problem is the amount of children that it doesn't work for. There's a great documentary about Ethiopian children who were adopted in America and then who became homeless at 18 after being thrown out of their homes, and children killing themselves. The documentary is by a man called Dan Rather. There is a lot of bad practice in this area, I'm afraid, and we need to just have a lockdown on it. We need to, as African parents, as Ethiopian parents, as Nigerian parents, as Ghanaian and Moroccan and South African parents, we need to foster too, because we always have. The children's homes in Africa weren't started by us, they were started by the church during times of colonization.

We were fostering and adopting way before those places were established. There are enough people who can do that. We need to encourage that. I'm not taking you away from what those parents want to do in Europe, but there's a reason why they've been taking children from Africa—it's directly connected with the infantilization of adults in Africa. If they truly cared about those children, they would give their money to adults to care for those children. Why take them thousands of thousands of miles away?

What was that experience of finally getting your case papers after fighting for them for so long, and then actually reading them?

Well I knew that they had done wrong things to me, but it was very difficult to prove. After finding the papers, it was time then, very simply, to take the government to court for stealing my name, for imprisoning me as a child, for giving me to incapable foster parents, and for trying to break me. I needed to prove it now legally, and take on the government through the legal system.

I was stolen from my mother, who was very vulnerable and needed help, as a baby. And the files actually show that. They show my mother asking for me back to a social worker who'd already named me [Norman] after himself. When my social worker wrote back to my mother in 1968, he didn't call me Norman. He called me Lemn Sissay—that means he was lying to my mother about the name that he had called me because he had named me after himself.

Why do you think actually having copies of the files in the book is impactful?

It's evidence. My friend, Tishani Doshi, is a novelist from India and she has a poem called Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods. It's metaphorical, as well as being an actual truth. We are in the days of WikiLeaks, there are more words passing between more people now than since the beginning of time. Information is starting to pour out. The past is not what they said it was. We need to find the evidence and out it because the evidence of what happened in the past has been controlled.

Have you heard that saying about the hunter? "Until the lion can speak, the hunter will always narrate the story of the hunt?" Well, the lion is the symbol of Ethiopia. I am the lion and I'm speaking. We are at a time now where we can address some of the crazy hallucinations of history which have been set upon the world through colonialist actions, but I am from an incredible continent which is involved with making great changes to society, which is involved in the digital revolution, and involved in finding a voice. I think now, more than ever, this is our time. For us to move forward, we have to address the past. Get it done, get it out, wash it clean and move on—and that's all I'm doing.

I am a son of Ethiopia. I met the prime minister only a few months ago, in the new parliament there. I am proud to be part of such an incredible country at an incredible time in its history. It's a fairy tale, man. It's our fairy tale.

"We are at a time now where we can address some of the crazy hallucinations of history which have been set upon the world through colonialist actions"

It seems that one of the many plights of being a foster children is having to go on this arduous journey of finding yourself, finding out who you are, because it's been stripped away from you. Is there a way to make it a smoother process for young children coming up in the system now?

I'm not going to suggest that the journey is to find yourself is easy—in many ways to go on that journey is the gift of life. So while it may be frustrating, it's actually a gift. That you, at quite an early age, can start to realize what the real priorities in life are: family, friendship, who you are, kindness to others, kindness to yourself. But I'll say this and it's really important, Harry Potter was a foster child. Superman was adopted. Moses—if you're religious—was adopted. You could say that Jesus had two fathers. The idea of the nuclear perfect family is a fallacy.

One of the greatest things that I learned when I found my family is that "now the journey really begins." It's when you have a family, that it's complicated. Most people inside families spend their lives looking for themselves, so [in that way] the foster child has a heightened awareness of the journey that we all have to take. That's why foster children are often used as the characters in these books. And if you go right back to the Greek myths like Oedipus, so many of those stories in the Greek myths are about parent-less children seeking their parents and their story. These children are heroes. They deserve our respect, our empathy and our love. Whether we give it or not, they will work themselves into knowing themselves. But also, in saying that, I know that many of them will commit suicide, many of them will find themselves on the streets—but we need to respect them and give them the care that they deserve.

How does it feel to be the winner of the PEN Pinter prize and to represent for Africa. You're the second African in a row to earn the prize.

It's a beautiful thing. I'm actually writing the speech for it, as we speak, but it's quite intimidating to follow Chimamanda Adichie but I'm going to do a good job. I'm going to do my absolute best.


Lemn Sissay will be appearing at Southbank Centre for London Literature Festival on Friday, October 18. Tickets are available here.

Nnedi Okorafor attends the 70th Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Nnedi Okorafor's 'Binti' Is Being Developed Into a TV Series at Hulu

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Binti, the acclaimed book by award-winning Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, is being adapted into a TV series, set to premiere on Hulu. The Hollywood Reporter was the first to break the news.

The three-part, science fiction novella will be adapted for screen under the studio Media Res. The script is being written by both Okorafor and writer Stacy Osei-Kuffour, who has previously written for Watchmen and The Morning Show amongst others.

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Here are 10 Recent Books from Black South African Women Writers That You Need to Read

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A few years ago, we celebrated the eight most influential Black South African women writers during Women's Month. The list featured the likes of Miriam Tlali, the first Black woman to publish a novel during Apartheid, Sweet Medicine author Panashe Chigumadzi and beloved poet Lebogang Mashile. We now bring you our selection of ten literary gems by various Black South African women writers which have shifted and even unearthed new narratives in the South African body of literature.

This list is in no particular order.

​"Collective Amnesia" by Koleka Putuma, published 2017

It is unprecedented for a poetry book in South Africa to go into a ninth print run and yet, Collective Amnesia has managed to do just that. The collection of poems, which compellingly explores religion, womanhood, Blackness, queerness, traditionalism, trauma and everything in between, has also been translated into Danish, German and Spanish. The winner of the 2018 Luschei Prize for African Poetry, Collective Amnesia has also been adopted as reading material for students at various institutions of higher learning across the country. It is a truly phenomenal and unrivalled first work by Putuma.

"The Ones with Purpose" by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, published 2018

Jele's book centers themes of loss, grief and trauma. After the main character's (Fikile) sister dies from breast cancer, it is now up to her to ensure that certain rituals are performed before the burial. The Ones with Purpose highlights a lot of what Black people refer to as "drama" following the death of a loved ones. It highlights how often Black people are often not given the opportunity to simply grieve their loss but must instead attend to family politics and fights over property and rights. It also speaks to how, despite the rift that loss inevitably brings to Black families especially, togetherness also results because of it.

"These Bones Will Rise Again" by Panashe Chigumadzi, published 2018

Drawing from Audre Lord's concept of a biomythography in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name as well as Alice Walker's essay In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Chigumadzi's These Bones Will Rise Again explores the history of Zimbabwe's spirit medium and liberation fighter Mbuya Nehanda during the Chimurenga, Zimbabwe pre- and post-colonization and the Mugabe-regime. The book also pays homage to her late grandmother. Chigumadzi's commitment to retelling lost narratives in Zimbabwe's complex history is a radical act in itself in a world that seeks to tell the country's stories through a lens that centers any and everyone else except Zimbabweans.

"Reclaiming the Soil: A Black Girl's Struggle to Find Her African Self" by Rosie Motene, published 2018

Just as Matlwa's debut novel Coconut explores the cultural confusion and identity crises that result in Black children raised in a White world, so too does Motene's book. In contrast, however, Reclaiming the Soil: A Black Girl's Struggle to Find Her African Self is instead a non-fictional and biographical account set during Apartheid South Africa. As a young Black girl, Motene is taken in by the Jewish family her mother works for. And while she is exposed to more opportunities than she would have had she remained with her Black parents, hers is a story of tremendous sacrifice and learning to rediscover herself in a world not meant for her.

"Period Pain" by Kopano Matlwa, published 2017

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"Always Another Country" by Sisonke Msimang, published 2017

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"Khwezi: The Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo" by Redi Tlhabi, published 2017

Redi Tlhabi's second non-fiction work tells the story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, the woman who accused then President Jacob Zuma of rape back in 2005. "Khwezi" as she became known throughout the very public trial, was a symbol of the many women subjected to the abuse of men in positions of power. Similarly, she was treated as women like her are so often treated—ostracized by the community and forced to leave and start anew elsewhere. Tlhabi's account of Khwezi's life was a courageous one and one that tries to obtain justice despite the court's decisions. Although Khwezi died in October 2016, her memory continues to live on in the hearts of many South African women who refuse to be silenced by the dominant patriarchal structure. For that alone, this work is tremendously important.

"Intruders" by Mohale Mashigo, published 2018

When one thinks of African literature, stories of migration, colonization, loss, trauma, culture and traditions usually come to the fore. As a result, Afrofuturism or speculative fiction is a genre that is often sidelined and the stories therein left untold. Intruders is a collection of short stories by Mohale Mashigo that unearths these stories in a refreshing manner. From mermaids in Soweto, werewolves falling in love with vampires and a woman killing a man with her high-heeled shoes, Mashigo centers the proverbial "nobody" and pushes against the narrative that Africans can only tell certain kinds of stories but not others.

"Miss Behave" by Malebo Sephodi, published 2017

There is a reason why Sephodi's Miss Behave has resonated so strongly among women across the board. Drawing inspiration from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's adage that "well-behaved women seldom make history", Miss Behave documents Sephodi's journey to smashing the stereotypes peddled by society in its relentless prescriptions of what women can and cannot be; can and cannot do. Naturally, she's labeled a "misbehaving" woman and hence the title of the book. Sephodi also explores themes of identity and gender issues while allowing women the opportunity to take charge of their own identities despite societal expectations. A book that wants women to discover their bad-ass selves and exercise agency over their lives? A must read.

"Rape: A South African Nightmare" by Professor Pumla Gqola, published 2015

This book is both brilliant in the way it unpacks the complex relationship that South Africa has with rape and distressing in the way this relationship is seen to unfold in reality. Rape is a scourge that South Africa has not been able to escape for years and the crisis only seems to be worsening. Written almost four years ago, Prof Gqola's profound analysis of rape and rape culture as well as autonomy, entitlement and consent is still as relevant today as it was back then—both a literary feat and a tragedy. There can be no single answer to why South Africa is and remains the rape capital of the world, but Rape: A South African Nightmare is by far one of the best attempts thus far.


Davido's Fiancé, Chioma Rowland, Tests Positive For Coronavirus

The Nigerian musician made the announcement via a heartfelt Instagram post on Friday.

Chioma Rowland, the fiancé of star Nigerian musician Davido, has tested positive for the coronavirus.

The artist shared the news via Instagram on Friday, writing that he and 31 people on his team decided to get tested after returning back to Lagos from abroad. While he and the rest of his team received negative results, Rowland's test came back positive.

"Unfortunately, my fiancé's results came back positive while all 31 others tested have come back negative including our baby," wrote Davido. He added that they both showed no systems, but would be self-isolating as a safety measure.

"We are however doing perfectly fine and she is even still yet to show any symptoms whatsoever. She is now being quarantined and I have also gone into full self isolation for the minimum 14 days," he added. "I want to use this opportunity to thank you all for your endless love and prayers in advance and to urge everyone to please stay at home as we control the spread of this virus! Together we can beat this!"

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Heavyweight Ghanaian-British producer Juls shares his first offering of 2020, and it does not disappoint.

The producer enlists South African music star Busiswa and London's Jaz Karis for the jazz-inflected "Soweto Blues," which also boasts elements of South Africa's dominant electronic sound, Amapiano. The slow-burner features airy vocals from Karis who features prominently on the 3-minute track, while Busiswa delivers a standout bridge in her signature high-energy tone.

"The song dubbed "Soweto Blues" is a song depicting the love, sadness and fun times that Soweto tends to offer its people," read the song's YouTube description. The video premiered earlier today on The Fader. "The energy is amazing, the people are lovely and I've found a second home — especially the vibrancy of Soweto," the producer told The Fader about his trip to Soweto for the making of the video "Jaz Karis is singing a love song, which is symbolic of my new love of Soweto and I'm honoured to have worked with Busiswa whom I have been a fan of for a long time."

Fittingly, the music video sees Juls traveling through the township, taking in its sights and energy. The video, directed by Nigel Stöckl, features striking shots of the popular area and its skilled pantsula dancers.

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