I’m very much looking forward to watching Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s new film, Farming. It has a very interesting storyline about a young boy with Nigerian parents who was Private Fostered by a White British Family. Dating back to the 1970s, it speaks to his struggles to belong in a very white community. With the challenges that arose within him regarding his identity, he ultimately becomes a leader of a white skinhead gang. If this does not epitomise self hatred, I don’t know what does.
I’m fortunate not to have ever been in the position of loathing myself or the colour of my skin. There is, however, a part of his story that I can identify with. Like him, my parents were Nigerian. I was also private fostered to a white English family when I was small. It was quite common in those days for Nigerian parents to have their children private fostered or farmed out to use the words of Akinnuoye-Agbaje. In fact, it still takes place today.
For clarity, private fostering describes an arrangement lasting 28 days or more, where someone other than a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or other close relative, cares for someone else’s child. It is quite widely practiced amongst Nigerians and to a less extent West Africans in general. It’s difficult to tell the precise numbers due to the private nature of the arrangements, which often means that placements are not always registered. Aside from the term farming (which I don’t really like), the children are at times referred to as invisible as most people are unaware that the practice. I believe it’s also representative of a part of Black British history that we rarely talk about.
Research shows that by 1974, there were an estimated 10,000 children privately fostered in England, 6,000 were born to African student parents who personally paid for the arrangement (as opposed to cases in which Government has responsibility). As of the end of 1998, the now disbanded African Advisory Service estimated that there were up to 9,000 West African children in private foster care in the country.
There are various reasons why Nigerians may have had their children private fostered. It is identified as having started in the 1950s when a number of Nigerians West African, in general, migrated to Britain to study. If they were back at home they would’ve had the support of grandparents and other members of the extended family; this support network was not available to them as students studying in England. Perhaps the English families looking after the children formed a substitute for this. Some faced challenges with housing which meant that they were unable to obtain adequate housing to accommodate both themselves and their children – some would also have had children born in Nigeria that came to live with them in England (similar to the situation with a number of Caribbean families. For some, it may have “simply” been to better enable their children to grow up British with a full understanding of the British way of life.
People’s experience of private fostering will vary. I had a much more positive experience that the young boy in the film, Farming. I believe that my experience of private fostering helped to form a substantial part of who I am and my ability to relate to people from varying backgrounds. As much as the experience of being privately fostered by a white family coupled with a relationship with a birth family can lead to a deeper understanding of different cultures and environments; it may also leave people with a question as to where they truly belong. Ade Onibada, clearly highlights how the impact of private fostering and then being moved to live with birth parents impacted the lives of five different individuals.
If not for both a conversation with a social worker about a television documentary some years back, I would have thought that private fostering of children of black West African families by white English families was something of the past. A key story that I remember from the documentary was that told by a local councillor in London who went to Wales on behalf of a Nigerian family to collect their five year old daughter from a white Welsh family that had private fostered her. On the train back, she noticed the little girl was sad. To comfort her, she started singing a song in Yoruba i.e. a Nigerian language. The councillor was shocked to the core when the little girl, in turn, started to sing in Welsh.
Onibada quotes Akinnuoye-Agbaje as saying that “this part of black history should be a headline instead of a footnote”….. no longer invisible. I agree as I believe that it is important, not to be critical, but to understand what it means to all parties involved – most especially the children.
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