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Madonna and (an African) child

The pop star brought attention to the plight of African orphans. But will she be allowed to keep hers?

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On the one hand, he clearly understands the opportunities David has been given: "He will get chances I did not have. That is good," says Banda. But, on the other hand, he talks fondly about his own childhood, in this very same village, and notes that, despite the poverty, he was happy. "It's difficult to realize what ... [you are missing] when you don't know anything else," he explains.

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Banda was a teenager when "Holiday" (Madonna's first big hit song) came out in 1983, but without record stores, electricity, or TV, no one was doing much disco dancing. In fact, most here had never heard of the pop diva. But today, children yell out "Madonna" to passing vehicles, and sometimes even offer themselves up for adoption.

Seven-year-old Robert Mtema is David's second cousin. A serious boy, he wears a striped tie his father gave him before dying two years ago. "I would like to go far away, too," says the boy wistfully. "I can leave my mother. Fine. I want to have a good education."

In the past six years Malawi has suffered two debilitating famines, during which the UN sent out desperate calls for help and, at one point, the Malawian president declared the country a disaster zone. Little of this was covered by the international press.

But the three major US television networks reported on the story of Madonna in Malawi 38 times in 2006, according to the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR): "This constituted their only mentions of Malawi the entire year, and [accounted for] more than two-thirds of the coverage they've devoted to the poverty-stricken country in the past six years."

"It was a complete madhouse," admits local reporter Mabvuto Banda, who was the first to break the story of the star's arrival in Malawi. "The country has never, ever, seen such attention." Celebrity correspondents from almost every British media outlet descended on the country and spent days in hot pursuit of Madonna, racing behind her down dirt roads and camping in rural villages to wait for her. Paparazzi photographers sneaked into the grounds of the orphanage and hid in trees.

African adoptions on the rise

Meanwhile, interest in adoptions from Africa has gone up, in part thanks to Madonna and another celebrity adoptive parent, Angelina Jolie.

"People's comfort level with adoptions from a different race, culture, and background was well along the way before Angelina and Madonna adopted. But those high-profile cases definitely gave the process more publicity," says Vicky Peterson, director of the Waltham-based international adoption agency Wide Horizons for Children (WHFC) that assisted Ms. Jolie with her adoption of Zahara, from Ethiopia. "It was on every magazine cover for weeks, and people see that adoption can happen successfully. This starts a snowball effect," says Ms. Peterson.

In October 2006, after Madonna took custody of David, phone inquiries to WHFC increased by 38 percent – this despite the fact that the agency had nothing to do with Madonna's adoption and does not even facilitate adoptions in Malawi. In July 2005, the month Angelina Jolie's adoption became public, the number of phone inquiries received by WHFC more than tripled over the previous month.

"It's so hard to watch children suffer," Madonna told Vanity Fair last month. "You hold these children and you think, 'How can I save them all? How can I make their lives better; what is their future?' "

Back in Lipunga, Banda, who has remarried, is helping his new wife, Flora, as she prepares corn for the mill. The couple is expecting a child soon, and Banda is building a new home, making the bricks himself.

There will be an extra bedroom, he says, just in case his son comes home.