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The orphan in Africa: a varied social category

Georges Danhoundo

Research Framework: Different agencies devoted to childcare, both at the national and the international level, are mobilized around orphan children. In the African countries in which the AIDS pandemic is widespread, caring for “AIDS orphans” is of special concern to government and non-governmental organizations, as well as families, bearing witness to the solidarity around a mission that seems to gathers widespread approval.

Objectives: This article analyses the different ways in which the “orphan” category is used, and their effects in terms of understanding public, social and international issues.

Methodology: It is based on data collected in the context of sociological, demographical and anthropological research on the actor strategies of those involved in caring for orphans in Africa.

Results: From the standpoint of these humanitarian and development NGOs, caring for orphan children entails profiling, something the “AIDS orphan and vulnerable children” category illustrates. Use of the “orphan” category, in particular, has become pervasive and has spread to the field of education and risk management. However, this word covers different realities, and remains loose. Combining sentimentalism and compassion, it calls forth a category that is structured by the innocence, the challenges, the frailness, the insecurity and the vulnerability of children; it is one of the main portrayals of contemporary childhood.

Conclusions: The “orphan children” category covers diverse realities. Orphan transfer in the paternal line as the unique solution being suggested by some NGOs, making reference to the ancestral practices of patrilineal African societies (in which the child is supposed to “belong” to the father’s lineage) should be called into question. Likewise, we should no longer consider the extended family as the only solution for caring for orphan children.

Contribution: This article emphasizes the fact that we must widen our understanding of the extended family when referring to the transfer of orphans, and better define belonging to the extended family. Beyond kinship rules, the ways in which orphans are transferred or the economical and social context play an important role.