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The Anthropology of Parenthood: Child Circulation in Africa

In Africa, child circulation is a widespread and long-standing practice. Children frequently circulate among households where they are taken care of by different people over a certain period of time. Child circulation is a dynamic and distributed form of parenting, embedded into complex systems of social, economic, and affective exchange that shape, and are shaped, by kin-based networks. However, the practice of child circulation interacts with other domains of analysis, such as national and transnational institutions that provide the legal framework for cases of child circulation to be negotiated. Additionally, these legal frameworks reveal implicit and explicit values about family and parenthood. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), for instance, states that the nuclear family is the “natural environment for the growth and well-being of children (preamble), and adoption must be considered only when it is in “the best interest of the child” (article 21).

In many African countries, the nuclear family is not the norm.

Rethinking Kinship Through Shared Parenting

Despite the high frequency and widespread distribution of child circulation in Africa, the practice had not been investigated until recently. This lack of interest is partly due to the declining popularity of kinship studies in anthropology following David Schneider’s (1984) fundamental critique of kinship. Schneider (1984) demonstrated that anthropology’s analytical concept of kinship was not transcultural, but located in the conditions of the 19th century United States and was, therefore, an ethnocentric imposition. Kinship studies were temporally abandoned before regaining interest with particular attention to gender, sexuality, and new reproductive technologies. New kinship studies emphasize social and non-biological relatedness (Carsten 2004; Strathern 1992). Carsten (1995) proposes a fluid approach to kinship as a process that establishes relations among the things individuals do in their everyday lives. She emphasizes the role of the domestic space, commensality, and shared food in the making of kinship. Therefore, kinship as doing better capture the processual and performative aspect of kinship, as well as the dynamic nature of social and economic exchanges that unfold in various localities (Carsten 2020). Paralleling Cole and Groes (2016), the fluidity of kinship is particularly relevant in the context of global mobility. Material and emotive resources, therefore, circulate more intensively in “affective circuits.” The “dynamic reservoir of resources” that constitutes kinship allows individuals to envision a future in which movement and migration are made easier for themselves and their children (Cartsen 2020, p. 321).

New kinship studies emphasize social and non-biological relatedness

As they circulate among households, children create an extensive network of relationships that can help them move along their life course. These relationships may simultaneously be exploitative (Berman 2012; Delaunay 2013; Jacquemin 2006; Schrauwers 1999). Delaunay (2013) explains that the practice of child circulation may expose children to discrimination – access to health care, food, and education – and different forms of violence, including forced labor and sexual exploitation. The practice of child circulation is negotiated within kin-based networks, and these negotiations often go along with social tensions, conflicts, and contradictions inherent to kinship relations. Berman (2014), for example, highlights the contradictions between adoptive and birth kinship in the negotiation of children’s belonging and upbringing. She explains that, while the adoption practice emphasizes children’s belonging to the kin group as a whole, children are often considered closer to their family of birth, resulting in poorer care from the adoptive family.