Madonna and (an African) child
The pop star brought attention to the plight of African orphans. But will she be allowed to keep hers?
He is, they say here, the most famous Malawian of all. Farmers sit around boasting. Secretaries in the capital, Lilongwe, have photos of him as their screen savers.Skip to next paragraph
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David Banda is just 2 years old, and he's famous because he was chosen for adoption by a pop diva named Madonna.
It's a fairy tale story, with a climax featuring one of the world's biggest celebrities swooping into rural Malawi, plucking a little boy from a crowded orphanage and flying him away on a silver Gulfstream to a life of privilege.
"Look, we have nothing. It is good to take him away," says Joseph Tambala, a farmer voicing the consensus here. "I wish someone would take my baby away."
The Material Girl's presence in this southern African nation – her charity work and, above all, David's adoption – have brought much needed attention to Malawi and the plight of its orphans.
And yet not everyone is cheering.
Recently, a group of 67 aid agencies, child charities, and church groups here joined to protest what they see as a celebrity using her status to circumvent legal procedures. "We are not against Madonna adopting a child per se," explains Justin Dzonzi, chairperson of the coalition, which has taken its grievance to the high court in Lilongwe. "We are simply asking that she, like everyone else, follows the laws."
David first caught the eye of Madonna's husband, Guy Ritchie, when the filmmaker was visiting the Home of Hope orphanage in Mchinji, some 60 miles west of the capital, say orphanage workers. The star couple had been looking to adopt, and Ritchie decided that this was the tot they wanted.
There was, however, a complication: the boy's father.
Yohane Banda's first child died within a few weeks of birth. The second, at 18 months. His third son, David, was born healthy, but Banda's wife died. Malawi has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates on the planet. According to Save the Children's 2006 report on the state of the world's women, 1 in 7 Malawian women die giving birth.
Overall, with the number of HIV/AIDS cases growing and life expectancy decreasing across Africa, there are tens of millions of children being left without either one or both of their parents. In Malawi, a country of 12 million where an estimated 14 percent of the population is HIV positive, there are approximately 1 million orphans.
Unable to take care of his newborn son alone, Mr. Banda, in consultation with his village's chief, put David in Home of Hope. Twice a week, for a whole year, Banda would ride his bicycle 22 miles along the red dirt roads to see his son, he says. Until the day Madonna whisked the child away.
The problems with the adoption – which has not been declared final yet – began with Banda's questionable renouncement of his parental rights. He signed papers allowing Madonna to take David, but has since indicated to the press that he was unclear about the difference between giving up his child for foster care and giving him up for adoption.
Moreover, Malawi's regulations stipulate that prospective parents undergo an 18-to-24-month assessment period in the country, a rule bent when Madonna was allowed to take David to London.
And criticism of the pop singer does not end there. Her Raising Malawi charity is setting up day-care centers for orphans here using a curriculum based on Spirituality for Kids, a life philosophy linked to the Kabbalah School of mysticism to which Madonna adheres.
"We have Christians and Muslims here, but no Kabbalah," says Lilongwe schoolteacher Glandson Mtumodzi. "We are unclear about the whole plan."
Numerous requests for an interview with Raising Malawi officials went unanswered.
A father's doubts
"I had anger, but I let it go," says Banda, a gentle man who makes a living growing onions and cabbage and bicycling across to the border to Zambia to sell them. He misses his son, Banda says shyly, sitting on the ground outside his hut and looking down as he speaks. He fiddles with a string on his tidy button-down shirt.