The offer of a foreign education for her beloved youngest son seemed like a dream come true for Elizabeth Rioba. But the Kenyan mother says a family member tricked her into signing adoption papers, and now it's been five years since she's seen her boy.
The Polish couple who adopted 4-year-old Abednego and renamed him Mikolaj say the procedure was fully legal, took six months and involved Polish diplomats who spoke with the birth parents. Rioba acknowledges that she signed papers but says she did not understand them.
Child protection experts say such tragic misunderstandings are common in a part of the world where adoption is a foreign concept. Criminals can exploit the gap between wealthy Westerners who genuinely want to help and poor Africans who want to do the best they can for their children.
Speaking in her Kenyan coastal village of mud huts, baby chickens scuttling between her feet, Rioba said she thought the couple was taking her son to Poland for schooling and would bring him to her on holidays.
"Instead of bringing him back, they said the child was theirs," she said, surrounded by relatives and friends who nodded sympathetically. She said that lawyer after lawyer declined to take her case, and that the one who did wanted $1,600. "I started paying but ran out of money so I had to give up," she said.
In an e-mail to the Associated Press, the Polish adoptive father said he was in e-mail contact with Rioba and her husband and had sometimes assisted them financially. But Rioba, who speaks poor English and has no phone or electricity, said that she and her husband quarreled over giving up the child and separated, and that she had not been told of any contact with her son. Repeated efforts to reach her husband by phone for comment were unsuccessful.
The Polish father, who declined further interview requests, requested anonymity to protect the boy's privacy. He said he took e-mails bearing Rioba's name at face value, without checking to see whether they were written by her. Rioba said she bore no ill will toward the Polish couple, instead blaming the relative who misled her about the process and who she suspects made money from it.
There's no word for adoption in Rioba's Swahili language. It is common for Africans to send orphaned or impoverished children to live with richer relatives, said Nairobi-based UNICEF expert Margie de Monchy, who has spent decades working on child protection issues. Unlike in adoptions, the child remains in regular contact with the parents.
Monchy said networks of traffickers were exploiting this confusion between African custom and Western concepts of adoption. With some families willing to pay as much as $30,000 for a Kenyan child, "it's calculated, it's organized and anecdotal evidence suggests it's increasing . . . throughout the region. It's getting worse and it's organized crime," Monchy said.
Monchy said celebrities such as Madonna may have unwittingly contributed to the problem by raising interest in African adoptions. The singer is adopting a Malawian boy whose mother died but whose father is living.
"Why did Madonna have to go for a child with a father? Why couldn't she support the father to take care of the son?" Monchy asked. "It shows the misunderstanding and disrespect for families on the other side of the world."
Madonna has said that she sees the adoption as "saving a life," and that more African orphans "need to be rescued" through adoption. The father has said in interviews that although he misses the boy, he is happy with the adoption as long as his son is well cared for.
There are no statistics on the number of families affected by the interest in African adoptions, but Monchy said anecdotal evidence showed that the problem of would-be saviors separating families was growing.
In October, six French aid workers were stopped in Chad with 103 children they said were Darfur orphans being taken to foster families in France. Most of the children were found to be Chadians with living parents or other adult care givers, and Chadian parents said they had been told the children were going to be enrolled in a new school in Chad, not taken out of the country.
The aid workers, from a group called Zoe's Ark, were convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to eight years in jail with hard labor by a Chadian court in December, a sentence that was commuted to eight years in jail when they were transferred to France under a judicial
Months later, the children involved were being cared for in a Chadian orphanage, their return to their families complicated in part because Zoe's Ark had not maintained records on them. Zoe's Ark officials said local intermediaries assured them the children were orphans.
In Liberia, which is slowly rebuilding itself after 15 years of civil war, child protection experts tell of families tricked into signing documents in a language they do not speak.
In one case, a father who discovered that he had unwittingly authorized the adoption of his children chased them to the airport, only to be held back by security guards, struggling helplessly as their plane took off. Other families placed their children in orphanages to be fed and protected from the war. When the fighting ended in 2003 and they returned to collect their children, they were gone.
The U.S. Embassy in Liberia can now request DNA tests to establish whether a person offering a child for adoption is a relative and not a trafficker. Many countries have introduced new guidelines to ensure parents understand the implications of adoption, or have ratified the 1993 Hague Convention, which lays out the criteria for adoption.
Yet many poorer countries lack centralized records, money to attract competent staff or even gasoline to take social workers on home visits.
In Kenya, the head of Children's Services, Ahmed Hussein, said new rules took effect in 2005 requiring parents to be given clear explanations about the meaning of adoption.
Nevertheless, his agency still sees several cases a year of parents unaware that they are giving up their children permanently. In such cases, the agency intervenes to stop the adoptions, he said.
The reforms are too late for Rioba, who weeps when she looks at pictures of her lost son.
Some mornings when she sits shucking corn into a plastic bucket between her feet, she looks at the muddy path leading into the village and imagines her boy walking home, tall and proud.
"Maybe he would talk Polish, walk like the Polish. . . . He's 9 now. I don't even know if he would remember me," she said.
And would she recognize him today? "Of course," she said simply. "I would never forget."
Associated Press writer Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed to this report.