Thu 15 Sep 2022 06.00 BST by Jimi Famurewa
Ada Wheeler, who fostered more than 150 children. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy
From the 1950s, thousands of children of African parents were happily fostered by white British families. But for some, the well-intentioned plan was deeply damaging.
Kemi Martins’ foster mother used to tell her a story about her childhood; a story that helped explain what it was like to be the white English parent of a Black African child. Martins was a baby when it happened, so it would have been in the early 1970s. Her foster mum was pushing her in a pram through Canvey Island, the blustery Essex seaside settlement where she lived with her other foster siblings, when she spotted a mirrored version of herself approaching. Another white woman; another gurgling, Black baby in a pushchair.
There was a nervous, excited flash of recognition, like two VW Campervan drivers waving awkward hand signals at each other on the motorway. “This other woman apparently went: ‘Ooh, you’ve got one as well,’” said Martins, with a laugh, telling me the story half a century later. “And then she said: ‘What do you feed yours?’” Martins (not her real name) left a beat, raised an eyebrow. “And my foster mum said: ‘Well, they just have the same food that we have.’ To which this woman said: ‘Oh, I just cook boiled rice for mine. That’s all they have.’” There was another careful pause, a disbelieving chuckle. “Needless to say, my foster mum was incredulous. And she sent this woman off with a bit of a flea in her ear about how disgusting it was – [that] you could just give your kids boiled rice all the time. But it was quite interesting to hear that story, given that my fostering experience was so positive.”
It feels, on the face of it, like a particularly strange and unsettling vignette that sticks out even amid the notoriously intolerant landscape of 70s Britain. (In 1974, the National Front – who called for the compulsory deportation of non-white settlers and their descendants – fielded more than 90 candidates in the October general election, up from 54 in February of that year, and just 10 in the election of 1970.) But perhaps the most striking thing about the story Martins’ foster mother told her is that it was not unusual at all.
After the second world war, it became commonplace for African immigrants establishing themselves in the UK to privately foster their children with white families. From the moment the first advert was placed by a Nigerian family in the childcare journal Nursery World in 1955, there was great demand. As a listing in a 1974 edition of the magazine read: “Pretty baby girl needs a new home.”
The following year, the magazine introduced a regular Homes Wanted section in the classified ads, and in the period between 1966 and 1970, 6,700 adverts were placed by west African parents seeking carers for their children. Though official figures on the number of approved agreements are hazy, a 1968 story in the Times reported that up to 5,000 children from west Africa were being fostered – or “farmed”, as it came to be informally known – in this way every year.
Not unexpectedly, some of these children’s stories are of prejudice, abuse and a kind of traumatising cultural disorientation: of afro-textured hair left to grow unkempt and knotted because white foster parents didn’t know what to do with it; of Black children forced to eat their meals on the floor; of being singled out, demeaned or being spat at by a racist policeman when they were five years old.
But tales of private fostering are not always negative. For some, being farmed to a white foster family was a short-lived, benign experience – an unusual, temporary engagement to be filed away deep in the memory and only jogged loose years later; just one presence in a child’s early life.
And it is this point that brings us to the nub of what those generations of postwar African parents were thinking, and helps us, perhaps, to make more sense of an act – the giving away of your children to paid strangers in a foreign land – that is hard to justify when viewed through a modern, western lens. Or as Joy Okoye, a barrister and transracial adoption specialist, put it in a 2001 Guardian interview: “West African children, unlike their European counterparts, are not seen as possessions of a nuclear family. In Africa, it takes a village to raise a child – and very often a village miles away from the family home. It is normal, extended family kinship, and the children placed away from home accepted it as such.” But replicating this communal, rural form of child rearing in an unfamiliar metropolis came with its own unexpected difficulties and psychological reverberations.
Often, fostering stories like Martins’ were unambiguously positive experiences in which children’s lives were enriched by caregivers who adored them as though they were their own and felt the same love flow back. “They treated us as though we were their own kids,” said Martins. “There was no element of: ‘You’re the foster kids, you get second best.’”
Naturally, this level of closeness posed a problem for what was supposed to be a transactional, temporary arrangement. Having been sent away while their parents finished their studies, saved money, found appropriate housing or, more broadly, got themselves situated, farmed children were mostly meant to return to their birth parents. But it was rarely that simple. The bonds forged between some of these children and their supposed foster parents were hard to sever. And so when it came time to leave – to go and join their birth family in some other part of the UK or, on plenty of occasions, back in Nigeria or Ghana – understandably, many of them didn’t want to go. Some regarded what should have been a happy reunion, a restoring of the natural order, with pure dread.
There are multiple reports of African children that simply refused to leave the life and culture they knew in order to join biological parents that – despite regular visits – would often be relative strangers. A mid-70s expansion of the custody rights afforded to foster parents (specifically an amendment made to the Children Act 1975) precipitated numerous legal battles over the rights to raise privately fostered African children.
The farming experiment, even at its mildest, was not the frictionless, emotionally detached arrangement that some envisioned. It was messy. And confusing. And its legacy is a long shadow that has loomed over the UK’s Black African diaspora for almost 70 years.
Beyond the specific testimonies of those who were farmed there is, I think, something universal to be explored. The cultural dissonance felt so keenly by lots of privately fostered African children will chime with other second-generation kids that feel caught between identities. To be shaped by African and English parents feels like a literal version of a sensation shared by millions of British-born Africans. And it is a feeling that is eloquently expressed by Tobi Oredein in a Buzzfeed article, a journalist who was farmed at 10 days old and remained with her white foster parents for many years.
During a first trip to Nigeria – in the company of her mothers – Oredein had an epiphany about what it is to be not just a child of private fostering, but a hyphenated British-Nigerian: “Why had I thought my ‘motherland’ would fill the void of unfamiliarity, when I struggled to achieve the comfort I sought in Nigerian communities in London? I knew England would never quite accept me as one of her own, but Nigeria couldn’t, either.”
The extreme pragmatism of those African parents who arrived amid the rubble of war and empire left behind a psychological scar that is only starting to be examined. Because for all these children who survived these experiences there has only ever been one question. Why?
To truly understand private fostering we must first understand the ebb and flow of west African settlement in the UK. And also, the evolving way that some of the 20th century’s first African Londoners were regarded by the country they wished to call home.
A foster mum with her children in London in 1948. Photograph: Keystone Features/Getty Images
In the mid-20th century, as west African nations nudged towards independence, a wave of African students – with few opportunities for higher education available to them at home – travelled to UK to study. They came to arm themselves with not just an education, but the vocational skills to run these fledgling countries.
But, of course, things didn’t go completely to plan. Many early African settlers were subject to a sudden, jerking reality check; profoundly changed and – more often than not – traumatised by what they faced in the UK. On Britain’s shores they felt a sense of isolation and cultural dislocation. There were the temptations of alcohol or illicit sexual relationships. There was the tightening vice of financial pressure. And there was, above it all, British society’s bone-deep racism: a wearying constant that manifested through the threat of physical violence, demoralising depictions in the press, or widespread “colour bar” policies that made everything from accommodation to basic socialising a challenge.
The daily indignities of this anti-Black sentiment carried a heavy emotional toll. Many west African students became permanently scarred, distressed and politically radicalised or unmoored and resentful of the empire. This fed anxieties about the growing issue of student wellbeing, in Africa and within the British government agencies tasked with managing the transition of an empire towards decolonisation.
And so, in early 1955, when the Colonial Office announced that married overseas students staying for longer than nine months – at that point, overwhelmingly male – could bring their wives with them to Britain, there was a traceable line of logic to it. It wasn’t just that the presence of these African wives would help allay societal jitters about interracial marriages between white British women and Black African men – longstanding fuel for race hate. The Colonial Office hoped that the presence of these wives would offer a useful link to home for the students.
So then, naturally, when the inevitable byproduct of reunited husbands and wives occurred – which is to say, babies were born in Britain to Africans whose stay was always supposed to be temporary, and whose focus was training and study – it was a problem that needed solving. That year, 1955, the fateful issue of Nursery World published the first advert seeking private foster care for an African baby. A government-backed means to both support and control overseas students during their temporary stay, precipitated an arrangement that would bind African and English, Black and white, together for decades to come.
What caused private fostering to persist as an arrangement up to at least the 90s? What were those on either side of the transaction really getting out of it? Let us start with the white, often working-class, families that answered the adverts like that first one in Nursery World. The financial benefits of paid wardship were a lure. Records show that families in the 60s could make as much as £3 a week for taking in fostered children (the equivalent of about £60 today). In fact, public discourse at the time characterised it as a kind of money-making scheme among white working-class women, with pearl-clutching press headlines fretting about “Babies for hire” and shiftless young women “squeezing gold from babies”.
True, money was almost certainly a prime motivator for a lot of the women. Especially when you factor in the potential ostracisation and prejudice they would have faced for taking in Black children at a time when racial tensions were high. The summer of 1958 had brought anti-Black rioting in Notting Hill and, by 1964, the Conservative MP Peter Griffiths won the Smethwick seat at the general election while promising to lobby for the repatriation of “the coloureds”. But there is evidence that many of these white foster parents – occasionally childless or with grownup children of their own and an appreciable paternal or maternal void – took these children because of a sense that it was the right thing to do.
Lola Jaye was taken in as a six-week-old baby in the mid-70s by London-based pensioners with a longstanding history of privately fostering west African children.
“My nan had been fostering since the 60s, so long before my time,” said Jaye, a British-Nigerian author and therapist who, bar a brief, tumultuous return to her birth family as an adolescent, spent all of her childhood being raised by “Nan and Ted” in central London. “Her first foster children were children that had to move here because of the Biafran war. So that’s when she started and, from then, it was just word of mouth in a small community of Nigerians who came here to work and study. Nan actually ended up looking after my cousins, who are 10 years older than me, so she was looking after people in my family long before I was born.”
But what of the west Africans who entrusted their children, often when they were merely a few weeks old, to these people? What was there to be gained from the arrangement, beyond the initial desperate need for childcare? And why did farming continue, even after west Africans had presumably established some of the family networks they had lacked in the previous decades?
Truthfully, it was an equally complicated transaction on the African side. On the one hand, there is evidence that aspirational, upper-middle-class west Africans quite liked the idea of having paid help, and paid English help at that. Nigerians were coming from a society where domestic servants, in the form of the live-in “house boys” and “house girls” that cook, clean and perform other menial tasks of the home, were commonplace.
Foster children in London in 1948. Photograph: Keystone Features/Getty Images
As Joanna Traynor, author of the transracial fostering novel Sister Josephine, theorised in the 2001 Guardian article on the subject of farming: “For some, it was a status symbol to have a white nanny in the country [Britain].” It is hard to weigh the precise rationale of all those early west African students forced to think on their feet while temporarily displaced, starting families and trying to better themselves and contribute to their countries. But it is not wide of the mark to suggest that having the ability to outsource the most demanding aspects of early parenthood, and focus entirely on the work that would improve your future prospects, would have been viewed, by some, as an immense privilege.
“I’ve never really gotten to the bottom of why we were fostered,” said Martins of her and her brother’s separate stints with their white proxy parents in Canvey Island. “I don’t think [my birth father] was doing any sort of formal qualifications. It was more just so he could apply himself more to his work as an engineer. And my mum was working as well, doing some clerical work. That was the impression I got. And when they have been cornered on it a bit more they’ve said: ‘Well, we wanted you to have a good start with British people.’ They didn’t use the word ‘assimilate’. But I guess there was something around that.”
West African parents knew enough about the hostilities of postwar society to realise that facility with English language and culture had real value. Giving your children an immersive education in Britishness could only be a positive thing – not just as a means to embed them within postcolonial society, but to bestow greater advantages when you ultimately returned back home. Surely the ability to move seamlessly between spheres and cultures, between western and African, was an added benefit?
It was, like so much related to the whole enterprise of farming, a well-meaning idea that did not have the desired result. Shuttling between two cultures – two homes, two parenting styles, two worlds – proved disorienting. As Martins remembers: “I would have to adjust to different rules, different parents and different priorities.” What’s more, sending African children to white families in supposedly quieter areas did not shield them from prejudice or abuse. The whole enterprise of private fostering, which had bloomed from the Colonial Office’s attempt to soothe the emotional struggles of west African students, had succeeded in intensifying those issues and passing them on to another generation.
And then, 60 or so mostly silent years after that first advert in Nursery World, these farmed children began to use their voices, and tally the psychological cost that came from private fostering’s extreme pragmatism.
For Shola Amoo, a London-raised British-Nigerian director who was privately fostered as a child, the decision to commit his personal experience to film was not an easy one. “It took a while to find a way to tell the story,” said Amoo.
Part of Amoo’s realisation was that the best way to do justice to this part of his history was to make sure that it wasn’t solely about him. “I was fostered from a racially chromatic [white] space to a more diverse, inner-city one,” he said. “I’m lifting from certain personal experiences, but I was talking to other people who were fostered, other Nigerians, and getting their stories.” Amoo’s film, The Last Tree, follows a young boy called Femi as he comes of age in Lincolnshire, multicultural south-east London and the thrumming, traffic-clogged streets of Lagos. The conflicting currents of alienation and acceptance that visibly flow through him during a climactic first trip back to Nigeria has the feel of truth spoken by someone who lived it.
Shola Amoo, right, on set of The Last Tree. Photograph: Courtesy of the National Film and Television School
At around eight years old, I remember being told by relatives that my cousin Tenne was going back to Nigeria on holiday when, in truth, he was moving back there permanently. The intention was that the falsehood would cushion the blow for me. In fact, it did the opposite – serving only to make his prolonged absence, and the slow, dawning realisation that he wasn’t coming back, more confusing and painful. I do not doubt that others in London’s Black African diaspora have similar memories – of atomised family units and well-intentioned parental decisions yielding unforeseen, occasionally traumatic repercussions. And this, I think, is what made the emergence of others’ farming stories in the past few years so affecting for me and many like me. Private fostering may have only affected some, but the issues it brings into focus – of familial secrecy and dissonance between generations of immigrant settlers – are universal among many Black African Britons. To see all this thrust into the spotlight felt at once thrilling and transgressive.
That notion of dissonance is key. For the benign, decades-long conspiracy of silence around private fostering stories to be broken marked a fascinating cultural transition. Not just in the wider context of a media landscape where Black stories of all kinds had a newfound currency, but also in the sense that British-African identity was clearly undergoing a pivotal change. There was a generational swing from the necessary stoicism of those first west African settlers in the UK – with both the influence of colonialism and an omertà-like culture of respect and secrecy conspiring to produce the stiffest of upper lips – to a way of being that was more about openness, psychological curiosity and a desire to explore and, perhaps, heal past traumas.
There is an irony to the idea that the gifts and advantages those African parents sought to bestow – through both farming specifically and, more generally, a life in Britain – have opened up a chasm between them and their children. Just as their parents’ generation had found solace in stoicism and survival, this new wave of first-generation children, or at least some of them, found that they could not stay silent about what they had been through.
In Farming – a primal yowl of a film by British-Nigerian director Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje – the enforced return to the biological family unit is depicted as extreme and traumatising. In scenes inspired by Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s tumultuous early life, a young boy raised in Britain is taken back to Nigeria by his parents at around eight, rendered mute by the change of environment, subjected to a tribal purging ceremony and then, months later, deposited back in his old foster home, back in the violently racist wilds of 80s Tilbury, even more maladjusted and troubled than he was when he left.
What does an experience like that do to your relationship with your birth parents and wider biological family? What does it do to your own personal relationship to that side of yourself? To African culture and your associations with it? In a 2012 conversation, Akinnuoye-Agbaje touched on this phenomenon; on how his forced return to Nigeria as a nine-year-old, as well as temporarily robbing him of speech, hardened his attitude towards Africa and Blackness in general.
“Now I had a reference point, and that really heightened my cultural identity crisis,” he said. “I wanted to assimilate and go back to the abnormal normality I knew. I wanted to wash off the experience of Africa, but obviously I couldn’t, because that’s who I was. As much as I wanted to deny it, it was plaguing me, and I was reminded by the images coming through the TV, people on the streets and in the end my [foster] family in the house.”
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje in 2019. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian
Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s response to this glitch of identity was to become a self-hating skinhead, fighting shoulder to shoulder with the racists who once tormented him. This reaction was obviously extreme, but this notion of the many lasting ways that a private fostering experience can leave its mark on an individual – and inculcate, at best, mixed feelings towards the people and the traditions that put them in that particular position – is one that sits at the heart of any conversation about farming.
How do you square old traditions, values and personality traits with new ways of living and feeling? Who do you identify with, when you are too British to be accepted as African, and too African to be accepted as anything else? Is it possible, or even necessary, to seek answers from parents who gave you away to strangers?
What about real-life west African parents that entered their children into private fostering arrangements? Have they been able to explain themselves and their actions, even as a finger of blame is raised in their direction? Do they even feel that they need to? The answer to that last question, anecdotally at least, would be a firm “no”.
Kemi Martins, when discussing the notion of witnessing any evidence of regret or remorse from her now elderly biological parents, puts it in simple terms. “There’s a different way of relating,” she said, describing that generational gulf. “That idea of: ‘Oh, we’ve reflected now, so let’s all have a group hug, cry and move forward’ – that’s not what it is. But I guess [my birth parents] are so used to battling through life and managing with what they’ve had that they’re more on that survival level. Whereas we’ve had the luxury of being able to listen to emotions.”
Here, yet again, we find ourselves back at the disconnect between African-born parents and their British-born children; between a culture predicated on stoicism and respect and one that embraces introspection and emotional openness. This disconnect is what has complicated some farmed children’s relationship with not just their parents but their heritage. And for Martins, it’s a feeling that goes right back to when she was first brought back into her biological family. “For me, I never really learned Yoruba, and so when you don’t understand the language of your parents there’s a level of understanding that will never be there,” she said. “And I feel it’s the same from [my parents’] perspective, the way they look at us. They’ll say: ‘You know you’re not English? You’re not white?’ And I’ll go: ‘Hold on, I’ve lived here for more than 50 years – how can you possibly think [I’d be any different]?’
“I have to accept [my parents] for who they are,” added Jaye, when considering the same issue. “My mum has been gone for a while now, but I still speak to my dad. He’s 90, has other wives and other children. So I need to take away my prejudices about that, forgive and just deal with him as he is. He’s an old man. So I’m going to do what I can for him, and I’m not going to have any malice about it, because that means I haven’t truly let go.”
Settlers: Journeys Through the Food, Faith and Culture of Black African London by Jimi Famurewa is published by Bloomsbury on 13 October. To preorder a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com