When All the Children Are Left Behind: An Exploration of Fosterage of Owambo Orphans in Namibia, Africa

Fig. 13.1
Four North Owambo-speaking regions of Namibia included in the household sample

Among Oshiwambo-speaking people, seven Owambo language groups exist today. Owambo societies during the precolonial and colonial periods were predominantly matrilineal agropastoralist societies demarcated from each other by large areas of forest and savanna (Salokoski, 1998).

Kinship is an organizing principle in Namibia, holding more importance than class and playing a critical role in decisions regarding socially distributed child rearing (Hayes, 1998). What class does in advanced capitalistic societies like the United States kinship does in Namibia—it shapes peer relationships, choices about marriage, and choices with whom one can be raised. Kinship in Namibia is complex, with some groups classified as bilateral or unilineal; and among the Herero speakers, a double-descent system exists. Matrilineal descent systems are found among Owambo speakers (Hayes, 1998). Lebert (2005) studied inheritance of land, cattle, millet, and children among Owambos in the northern region of Namibia and described a traditionally matrilineal system. Upon the death of a man, the first order of inheritance is his oldest brother. If there is no oldest brother, then inheritance goes to his oldest sister’s oldest son, followed by his sister’s daughter’s oldest son. If a man has no siblings, inheritance goes to the oldest living male descendent of his mother’s sister. Upon the death of a woman, her children receive the inheritance—girls receive ornaments and jewelry, and boys receive the cattle.

Children traditionally belong to their mother’s family, and men do not pass on their matrilineal membership to children. The mother’s brother often plays a pivotal role in the care of the children, including providing care through fosterage. Even within this system, however, there is significant variation and complexity. Recent adaptations in the matrilineal inheritance system are due to the impoverished state of widows, as the husband’s matrilineal kin traditionally have rights to all of the wife’s possessions after his death. Similarly, the rising number of orphans has forced both paternal and maternal kin to raise children.

Namibian Demographic and Health Survey

The quantitative portion of the study utilized the 2000 Namibian DHS collected from a random sample of all ethnic groups in Namibia and focused on all children under age 19 in all households identified in the Owambo homeland (N = 5,949). The four northern regions of Namibia (Oshana, Ohangwena, Omusati, and Oshikoto) are the traditional homeland for Owambo-speaking people. All children whose mothers identified as Owambo were utilized (N = 4,030). For the qualitative portion, Oshiwambo families (N = 4) were also selected (see Fig. 13.3). The DHS is a nationally and regionally representative survey conducted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Foster children were defined in the DHS survey as children with both parents alive but residing with neither parent. An orphan was defined as a child under age 19 whose mother or father (or both) has died. A child whose mother is deceased was described in the data as a maternal orphan. A child whose father is deceased was described as a paternal orphan. If both are deceased, the child was referred to as a double orphan.


Childs Residence Status. The DHS survey afforded two ways of discerning a child’s fosterage status. First, DHS data on Childs Residence Status (fosterage and orphan prevalence) was collected by asking for each child the following: “Is [name]’s mother still alive?” and “Is [name]’s father still alive?” If the parent was still living, the household head was asked whether the parent currently resides in the reference household. Each head of household reported on all members of a household and their Relationship to the Head of Household (spouse, son/daughter, grandchild, sister/brother, other relative, foster/adopted child, non-relative). Second, all individual females aged 15–49 were asked about birth histories. Information on each child was recorded, including with whom the child currently lived, and was recorded as either “lives with respondent” or “lives elsewhere.”

Developmental Markers. The nutritional status of children under age 5 was measured by three standard indices of physical growth: height for age (which can be used as an index of stunting), weight for age (which can be used as an index of underweight status), and weight for height (which can be used as an index of wasting). Height was recorded in centimeters, and weight was recorded in kilograms. These indices were calculated using the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Standard Deviation-derived Growth Reference Curves derived from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS/CDC) Reference Populations, which sample international populations. Education was measured by two variables for children over age 5. First, attendance status was measured by asking the head of household if the child attended school in the previous year and in the current year. Attendance status was coded yes or no. Second, Education in Single Years was measured as a continuous variable.

Qualitative Data Collection

Multiple Case Study. A multiple case study of four Owambo families was conducted to better understand the cultural logic of fostering. In-depth interviews were conducted in Namibia, Africa, between September and November 2006 with four female heads of household.

Two sampling techniques were utilized. A purposeful sample, designed to intentionally select individuals to understand the central phenomena, was used. All families interviewed were interconnected through the practice of child fosterage. Maximum variation sampling, in which the research samples’ cases or individuals differed on some characteristics, was also used. Participants were initially recruited through contacts with women I knew well. I began with a female head of household whom I have known for over 10 years. From the information obtained about the children in the house, the second household was selected. If the family had fostered out a child, the recipient family was contacted and asked to participate in a similar interview. This process was repeated. The fourth family was not connected through child fosterage or kinship but was identified by the first family as a potential outlier. In line with recommendations for the number of cases to select in a multiple case study, four families were interviewed, as the goal of a case study is to gain in-depth understanding, not generalizability (Creswell, 2003; Stake, 1995).

An initial visit was made to ask if the family would be interested in participating, and if so, additional meeting times were scheduled. I utilized some elements of postmodern anthropology theory when conducting the case studies. In an attempt to be self-reflexive and remove the dominant position of the researcher, I disclosed to participants my own experiences of being adopted in the United States, being a mother myself, and my own experiences of living in Namibia previously and returning to do research on child fosterage. I encouraged participants, if questions arose, to stop and ask about my own experience.

Interviews lasted between 2 and 4 hours. Three of the interviews were conducted over multiple days. The fourth interview was conducted during a daylong visit. All interviews were tape-recorded and translated if needed. Participants were invited to speak in their language of choice, either Oshiwambo or English. I encouraged participants to switch between languages if it made explanation easier. All interviews were conducted in English, with passages in Oshiwambo. Participants were paid 50 Namibian dollars for participation. This is equivalent to seven US dollars.

Qualitative Data Analysis. A case study is a type of ethnographic design (Stake, 1995) and is an exploration of a “bounded system” or a case over time, through detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of information and rich in context (Merriam, 1998). In this study, the multiple cases served the purpose of “illuminating a particular issue” (Creswell, 2003)—namely, what is the cultural logic of fostering during crisis?

Analysis of the case study followed Stake’s (1995) technique and occurred in three phases. I performed the initial coding and thematic analysis. First, a detailed description of each family was created from filed notes, observations, and information gathered during the interviews. All interviews and field notes were typed for analysis. Second, thematic analysis was performed on two levels: within each case and across the cases (Stake, 1995). Thematic analysis of the interview data was done by (1) initially reading the data for overall understanding and writing preliminary notes, (2) partitioning segments of text and labeling them with codes, (3) aggregating similar codes together to develop themes, (4) connecting and interrelating the themes, and (5) constructing a narrative. The interconnected themes were of particular interest to the study, as the relationships that exist between families are subjects of the central questions of the study. The final phase of analysis was to integrate the cases and themes and report on the “lessons learned” or assertions put forth from the study (Stake, 1995).


Information analysis about households, mothers, and children in Namibia revealed a demographic picture of family life in Namibia. Owamboland has the highest rates of children in Namibia who do not live with either parent but whose parents are both alive. Rates range from 29.4 to 36.9 % in the four northern regions and from 11.5 to 28 % in the rest of the country. Rates of living with both parents are much lower, ranging from 13.6 to 18.4 % in the northern regions and from 23.0 to 48.2 % in the rest of the country. Table 13.1 shows demographic information about Owambo children, mothers, and households.

Table 13.1
Demographic information on Owambo children, mothers, and households in Namibia


Percentage and mean values










2,641 (48.1 %)


2,853 (51.9 %)

Child lives with whom


2,299 (57.0 %)


1,731 (43.0 %)


Age of mother




Age at first birth




Total children born




Number of living children




Number of children died





 No education

18.5 %


39.1 %


39.7 %


2.7 %

Current married status

 Never married

1,426 (36.5 %)


1,291 (32.0 %)

 Living together

949 (23.5 %)


140 (3.5 %)


22 (0.5 %)

 Not living together

153 (3.9 %)


Total people in house




Number of children under 5




Head of household age




Place of residence


654 (11.9 %)


4,840 (88.1 %)

Education of head of household

 No education, preschool

2,442 (45 %)


2,634 (48.5 %)


353 (6.4 %)

Sex of head of household


46.3 %



53.7 %

Relationship structure

 One adult

8.2 %

 Two adults opposite sex

11 %

 Two adults same sex

6.9 %

 Three + related adults

57 %

 Unrelated adults

16.9 %

Table 13.2 shows the height and weight of Owambo children. Owambo children under 5 years old averaged 10.8 kg and 84.5 cm. Height and weight percentiles were calculated for all children under 5 years of age using the CDC Standard Deviation-­derived Growth Reference Curves derived from the NCHS/CDC Reference Populations. Owambo children registered in the 19th percentile on average for weight and in the 25th percentile for height. Their weight-for-height average percentile was 29.9, meaning children on average compared to other children internationally are in the 29th percentile on weight-for-height measures.

Table 13.2
Mean level of education and height and weight of Owambo children in Namibia


Percentage and mean values



Education in single years




Attended school in current year


3,309 (87.3 %)


483 (12.7 %)

Weight in kilograms




Height in centimeters




Height/age percentile




Weight/age percentile




Weight/height percentile




Note: Height and weight percentiles were calculated for all children under 5 years of age using the CDC Standard Deviation-derived Growth Reference Curves derived from the NCHS/CDC Reference Populations (N = 1,388)

Education indices were calculated for all children age 5 years to 19 years (N = 4,106)

Univariate statistics on all outcome variables used in the study are presented in Table 13.2.

From the household interviews, each person’s relationship to the head of the household was gathered. Table 13.3 shows the number of Owambo children and their various relationships to the head of household. Biological children made up 36.8 % of the children under 19 years old living in households, 41.5 % were grandchildren to the head of household, 13.9 % were other relatives, 2 % were adopted or fostered children, and 4 % were not related to the head of household.

Table 13.3
Distribution of Owambo children’s kinship relationship to head of household

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Feb 14, 2017 | Posted by in PEDIATRICS | Comments Off on When All the Children Are Left Behind: An Exploration of Fosterage of Owambo Orphans in Namibia, Africa
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