ELLIE’S ADOPTION: Three Things That Surprised Us

UPDATED 13Jun2020 + video: Some of you may remember me telling you about our daughter, Ellie. We adopted her from South Africa in 2008. Click here to read if you missed it. She was 7 months old when we met her on an open porch in Durban, and she’s 12 years old now. Right from the start we were in for some surprises with Ellie. Here are three that stand out for me.

Ellie Surprise#1: No Difference in Feelings

Mary and I had four kids in the usual way before Ellie, so we knew what it was like to feel parental attachment to biological kids. What surprised us is how this same feeling kicked in right away with Ellie. I hear some people say “we could never love an adopted child like one of our own”. You might be surprised. Although I can’t speak for everyone, Ellie certainly felt like “one of our own” right from the start. This has never changed and I don’t think it ever will.

Ellie and her 5th birthday cake.

Ellie Surprise#2: Ellie Has a Lot of Africa in Her. A Lot.

Ellie was two months old when she began living in an African orphanage, and about 4 1/2 months old when she moved in with a white foster family in Durban. That’s not a lot of time to pick up cultural things (especially at that young age), but somehow she has them.

One of the features of the African languages in her area is a clicking sound. Compared with “Canadian” clicks, it takes a very different movement of the tongue and mouth to make this click. I’d never seen anything like it before Ellie. Many months before she could talk, Ellie was making this unique clicking sound. She still does it if you ask her to. Robert, our oldest, calls Ellie “Clicker” sometimes as a nickname. It doesn’t seem possible to me that Ellie could have picked up this clicking habit as an infant. But if it didn’t come to her by example, could it be genetic?

Another strong “Africanism” Ellie seems hardwired with has to do with music and dancing. Even though she has grown up in a very rural, very white community, Ellie does dance moves of the kind we saw in South Africa when we were there. Dance just seems to ooze out of her. So does singing. Also, even without any examples she could see, Ellie started wrapping t-shirts around her head when she was two years old, just like almost all the women did with colourful kerchiefs that we saw in rural areas around Durban. She called it her “shirt hair”. Every so often, when Ellie got her hands on a roll of masking tape, she made rings from the tape and slipped them around her ankles, just like the traditional Zulu dancers we saw in Durban.

I’m constantly amazed at how much of Ellie’s personality, talents and what I call “African qualities” must come from genetics. Can any child pick up these things in the first 7 months of life, 5 months of which were spent in an orphanage? Click below to watch Ellie sing. She practices every day.

Ellie Surprise#3: She Was SO, SO Welcomed

One of the nicest things about living in a small place, as we do, is that everyone knows you. But it’s also true that one of the challenges about living in a small place is that everyone knows you. So how would a very white, very traditional community react to a black child born in the heart of Africa? There would be no hiding Ellie. Was this a foolish thing for us to even try? And how would Ellie feel?

Ellie and a beef cow at our Manitoulin Island homestead.

Neither Mary nor I expected any prejudice, but what we didn’t expect was the level of warmth and welcome she received. It was truly heartwarming. For months after Ellie arrived, people would stop us in the street and congratulate us. They showed a genuine interest in Ellie, and still do. She has been completely welcomed and embraced in every possible way, and it’s a beautiful thing to see. In a world where racial tensions and troubles are top-of-mind, I’m thankful and encouraged to see so much goodwill when it comes to Ellie and our community here on western Manitoulin Island, Canada I knew my community had a big heart, but I didn’t know just how big it was.