Posted on October 16, 2006

‘Growing Up In An Alien Environment’

BBC News, Oct. 13, 2006

Ethiopian poet, playwright and author Lemn Sissay, 39, was raised by a white family in the north of England. Here he tells how his life often felt like an experiment.

When somebody takes a child from their native culture, that is in itself an act of aggression.

People will often say, love is all you need.

But that is not true. Love without understanding is a dangerous thing.

My mother came to England in 1967, which was a really high point in Ethiopian culture — Ethiopia was a prosperous place. She came during what was a comfortable time for Ethiopians.

But as she found out, it was not a comfortable time for race relations in the UK.

My mother, finding herself in difficulties, sought to have me fostered for a short time.

However, the care worker, who named me Norman after himself, told my foster family that it was a proper adoption.

I was with them for 11 years.

My mother and father

Although they were white I believed they were my father and mother.

I had seen black people in the street or maybe even said hello but until I was 17 years old I never actually knew another black person.

From this I picked up subconscious messages of a kind of lazy racism living in the north of England.

My life was a bit like being an experiment.

Like anyone looking back would feel about growing up in an alien environment — one which treated them as an alien.

I didn’t have an afro comb until I was nine-years-old. My mother used to comb my hair with a metal comb that tore my head. When I was about nine, my parents took me to the doctor because they couldn’t understand why my knees were grey.

I remember my mother often saying to me: “Don’t look at me with those big brown eyes.”

She probably never meant it negatively but it meant that I grew up with a fear of my own eyes.

Trojan horse

My parents were very religious. They told me that they had not decided to take me in, rather that it was God that had decided it for them.

When I was 11 they put me into care.

To them I had become a Trojan horse that symbolised evil. They said that I was bringing evil into their home, that there was this mighty struggle inside me and that God was losing.

To be honest I think it was because they had since had another child and were struggling to provide for us all.

They told me they would never write to me or see me again.

My foster mother contacted me only once to tell me that my granddad had died.

I had always thought that I was going to go back to them.

I knew on an intellectual level that I wasn’t their child but on an emotional level I believed I was their child. I didn’t know the difference between fostering and adoption.

I have got rid of my anger. It is something that you get through it.

I have been very lost. I’ve been very confused. But I’ve always searched for answers.

And the ultimate answer is that the buck stops with yourself.

Uneasy relationship

I met my proper mum when I was 21. It took me three years to find her.

By that stage she worked for the UN in the Gambia.

I travelled out to see her. It was difficult because I looked just like my father had the last time she saw him.

My real mother is a survivor, very strong and respected by the people who know her but our relationship is not easy but then it was never going to be.

To Western parents that want to adopt a child, I would say to people that money is not everything, wealth does not matter.

Don’t tell me that you’re adopting child to give them a better life.

Is that child then owing to you? And what do they owe? Shall they pay you back in emotions?

And that your view of other cultures and how they may be poor is your view — it says more about you than the place you’re looking to adopt from.

Do you want the child because you want a better life for yourself?

I am not invalidating the love that you want to give but I am putting the rights of the child first.

Understand that it is your own experience that leads you to want to take a child from its culture, and display that child as your own in an alien environment.

Gold from the stone

Oil from the Earth

I yearned for my home

From the time of my birth

Strength of a mothers whisper

Shall carry me until

The hand of my lost sister

Joins onto my will

Root to the earth

Blood from the heart

Could never from birth

Be broken apart

Food from the platter

Water from the rain

The subject and the matter

I’m going home again

Can’t sell a leaf to a tree

Nor the wind to the atmosphere

I know where I am meant to be

And I can’t be satisfied here

Can’t give light to the Moon

Nor mist to the drifting cloud

I shall be leaving here soon

Costumed, cultured and crowned

Can’t give light to the Sun

Nor a drink to the sea

The Earth I must stand upon

I shall kiss with my history

Sugar from the cane

Coal from the wood

Water from the rain

Life from the blood

Gold from the stone

Oil from the earth

I yearned for my home

From the time of my birth

Food from the platter

Water from the rain

The subject and the matter

I’m going home again

Gold from the stone

Oil From the earth

I yearned for my home

From the time of my birth