One woman’s amazing story of how the urge to love and nuture and take you to the ends of the earth.
On their first date, Amy told her future husband, Ben, that she wanted to adopt five children and move to Africa. And it didn’t scare him off. Amy always knew she would adopt. It wasn’t a question of necessity — she could have children naturally — but one of choice, one she made at an early age.The seeds were planted when she was six and saw the 1984 Ethiopian famine on television. “I was horrified at the emaciated babies. I told my mother then I would help children like that when I grew up,” she says.So, when Amy first held her son Barnabas for the first time in Tanzania, it was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. “Since I’d given up dolls I had wanted to become a mother,” she recalls. “Staring down at him, I knew I loved him more than anything in my whole life.” Amy’s journey to motherhood is no ordinary story. Barnabas, now 12, was adopted when he was two.Amy, 34, and her husband Ben, 35, have four other adopted Tanzanian children — Tia, 10; Charlie, eight; Molly, seven and Leila, six.They have no plans to add to their family biologically. “I’m often asked if I’d like ‘a child of my own’ but that makes me laugh. Biology means nothing,” she says. “People assume adoption is the last resort — just for if you are infertile. I had always wanted to be a mother, and yet saw hundreds of babies without one. It was simple maths. A child with no family and a family with no child can make a happy unit. It was never a last resort but my life plan.” Amy spent a year volunteering at a Zimbabwean orphanage before university and also did stints at Romanian orphanages. She trained as a teacher so she could work in Africa permanently. “Africa felt like my calling. I knew that was where my life was headed,” she says. Then Amy met Ben at university in Durham and told him about her ambitions. “As our relationship grew, it was accepted that this was how we would have children,” she says.By 2002, the couple had married and were living in Mwanza in Tanzania. Amy worked as a teacher at the Isamilo International School and Ben in IT. Each night the couple travelled across town to visit an orphanage. “There were over 100 babies lying in cots. All of them wanted their turn to play and have cuddles.”Amy had contacted Tanzania’s social welfare department about adoption but the response was muted. “They said they had no white children for us. They implied we only wanted a black child until we got a white one and then we would discard it. We insisted that this was our family choice.” Undeterred, Amy and Ben visited social welfare every day for three months until the authorities relented. A nine-month administrative process followed that included interviewing their families in the UK. “Finally we were told to choose a child from the orphanage where we volunteered. It was an impossible decision.” In the end, the orphanage directors chose Barnabas and, in September 2003, the couple took him home.“I had spent months poring over books and expected a ‘growing to love you’ time, but the connection between us all was instant,” says Amy.Amy and Ben decided to apply for a second child almost immediately. “We knew the process was lengthy but in July 2004 we were offered Tia, who was six months. We met her when we flew across Tanzania to Arusha to collect her. She was easy to fall in love with.”Around that time, Amy went to visit a friend in hospital and what she saw changed her life yet again. “I went to the nurse’s office for a clean bed sheet. In a metal cot, among the sheets, lay four babies. They could have ranged from one month to two years — I could not tell as they were literally skin and bones.” The nurse told Amy the babies had AIDS and because of that no one was caring for them.
The next day, Amy visited the social welfare office.“The images of the Ethiopian famine had come rushing back and I knew I had to do something. When I told the head social worker, she asked if I wanted them. I couldn’t take four babies to our small house but from that conversation our orphanage, Forever Angels, was born.” It took two years for Ben and Amy to gather the finance, people and property to set up the orphanage. In April 2006 they moved into a house on site. Since that day the home has cared for 223 children in the centre and over 200 outreach cases. About three quarters of the children are eventually reunited with their biological families.“Their mothers have generally died but other relatives take them once they are strong and weaned. Formula is too expensive for many so without Forever Angels the babies would die. The other 25 per cent of children are, hopefully, adopted. We couldn’t save those four original babies but others have been helped because of them.”As Forever Angels grew, so did Amy and Ben’s family. First there was Molly, one of the orphanage children. “She was six months old and so ill with malnutrition and neglect that I took her into our house to give her undivided attention. As I brought her through the door Barnabas and Tia’s eyes lit up. I knew then she was never going back.“We still had to go through all the proper channels to adopt the children and they were all legally adopted at the Tanzanian High Court.
Adopting Barnabas was hardest as we had to get approval from the UK as well, but for the other four children, we could use the same approval so it was easier.”Next came Leila. She arrived at Forever Angels at seven weeks old, weighing just 2lb 8oz. Within a week, there was a chicken pox outbreak. “She was so vulnerable; she would not have survived so I took her to my house.” For weeks Amy woke every two hours during the night to feed Leila through a tube. “Ben and I knew in our hearts she was never going back.” Charlie, their fifth child, had been adopted unsuccessfully by a British couple. “They were just not prepared for the demands of a five-year-old child and terminated the adoption early on, before strong attachments were made.” He was returned to Forever Angels.“All of my children knew Charlie and when I told them he would be taken to another orphanage as he was too old, they immediately agreed we should adopt him.”
This time social welfare gave their approval by telephone they had become so used to the Hathaways.Amy says her children are used to sharing her with Forever Angels. She often works 20-hour days. “I might be at the police station dealing with an abuse case; visiting a child reunited with relatives; at an HIV clinic, up to my eyes in paperwork or just playing with the children.” Some days she’ll be driving madly around town trying to source baby milk. And sometimes there are funerals for babies that lose the fight. Thankfully she has a childminder, Pauline, to help with her own family.In June, Amy and Ben are returning to England. Leila is deaf and they feel she will benefit from specialist medical care and schooling. Amy has trained managers and will continue to fund-raise from here. “It breaks my heart to leave. I have no idea how to be a mum in the UK and it feels daunting. The children will always be a part of Tanzania. We often talk about their ‘tummy mummies’. They gave their children an amazing chance. I owe these five women for ever for giving me the most precious gift imaginable.”