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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."

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News Brief
(Screenshot from "Every Woman" video)

Check out Cameroonian Crooner Vagabon’s New Ode to Female Power

The singer dropped a video for new single "Every Woman" today, shot by fellow Cameroonian director Lino Asana.

Cameroonian-born singer-songwriter Laetitia Tamko, better known as her stage name Vagabon, has been spoiling us with delights as of late. First, the crooner teased us with two singles, "Flood" and "Water Me Down" from her forthcoming sophomore album, Vagabon, a work she wrote and produced herself. And today, she surprised us with a new single and video for "Every Woman"—a track Tamko claims is the "thesis of the album," as per a press statement reported by The Fader magazine

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Interview

Patoranking Is a New Man On 'Wilmer'

INTERVIEW: The afro-fusion musician speaks about his humble past, the struggle to rise above poverty, and how his daughter inspired his album Wilmer.

Watching Patoranking glide through his album listening in his all-black ensemble, you'd nurse the impression that this is a man who has just won the lottery. His smile is a wide curve punctuated by periodic deep laughter mined from his belly. When he poses for a shared photo, he throws his arms around the closest person and whispers into their ear. And as a record from his new album Wilmer comes on, you see him sing along, waving his arms up to connect with the music. His music. His sweat. His vision. His life.

This is a celebration for Patoranking. The DJ kept the playlist hovering around Caribbean sounds, the food was inspired by Jamaica, and alcohol flowed like it came from a spring situated in a corner of the room. All around, the venue was packed with hobnobbing celebrities, businessmen and key players from the Lagos music industry. Everyone who mattered in the city was in the room as cameras clicked away.

This wasn't exactly how Patoranking imagined it. He says he wanted a mini-gathering of stakeholders, but "when I got there I was just like "oh my goodness, this is a party. Okay, let's turn it into a party. Let's just party." And that's what everyone did.

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