In Malawi, uproar over Madonna and child

Rights groups accuse Malawi's government of bending the rules for the pop diva to adopt a son.

If American pop star Madonna was hoping to bring attention to the issue of Malawian orphanages with her own recent adoption, then her wish has been granted.

From the moment Madonna's private jet landed in Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, earlier this month and departed last Friday, the southern African country has become divided over whether her adoption of a 13-month-old boy named David is in the child's best interests and whether the singer received special treatment by the government's adoption authorities.

By Malawian law, adoption of a child by a foreigner is illegal unless the foreigner has resided in Malawi for 18 months. The High Court granted Madonna an interim order approving the adoption, under the condition that she be monitored over the next 18 months.

While Malawian human rights advocates have cried foul, the case of Madonna's adoption has stirred a fierce debate, both in Malawi and across the continent, about whether money and influence have once again set aside the rule of law in a poor country.

"This is a huge concern for us: if you stretch the rules for one person here, then what do you say to the next?" says Joan van Niekerk, national coordinator for Childline, a Johannesburg-based advocacy group for children's rights. "Rules exist to protect children. Some people do have a genuine desire to help children in need, but you also have a so-called 'fashion of adopting,' among celebrities. These people are role models, so if a role model steps outside of normal procedures, what message are you giving out?"

In Malawi itself, Madonna's adoption has become a rallying cause for child and human rights advocates. The Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), an umbrella of civil society groups, has filed a motion in court to ensure that Madonna's adoption procedure followed the letter of the law.

"A Malawian and a non-Malawian do not occupy the same legal position, and we are not discriminating against anybody," says Justin Dzonzi, the chairman of HRCC. "The law makes no exception on who can adopt a Malawian kid."

According to the Adoption of Children Act, "An order shall not be made except with the consent of every person or body who is a parent or guardian of the infant in respect of whom the application is made or who has the actual custody of the infant or who is liable to contribute to the support of the infant."

Yohande Banda, the birth father of Madonna's adopted son, told local Malawian journalists that he had put David into an orphanage temporarily last year, after the death of David's mother. He also said he did so because he feared that David was suffering from malaria, which had killed two of his other children, and that he was influenced by government officials to accept Madonna's adoption.

"The government people told me it would be a good thing for the country," said Mr. Banda. "They said he would come back educated and be able to help us."

Penson Kilembe, director of the state agency that handles adoption, says that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) against the adoption do not understand all the issues involved.

"As government, we have no problem with Madonna adopting the child," says Mr. Kilembe. "Child adoption is also a rights issue, and these NGOs do not seem to understand that as government we have both a moral and ethical obligation to mitigate the plight of children. Madonna has set a precedent worth emulating."

That, of course, is exactly what worries child rights advocates such as Ms. Van Niekerk. "Procedures are there to ensure that we reduce incidences of children being trafficked, to reduce the incidences of children being separated from their parents," she says. "This is why we have rules."

In Malawi's commercial capital, Blantyre, public opinion was sharply divided on whether the government – and the famous pop diva – had done the right thing in granting David Banda's adoption.

Leonissa Maganga, a mother of four, says Madonna must be commended for considering Malawi and David in particular. "I think it was God's plan for Madonna to come to Malawi and adopt poor David," she says. "Just imagine, leaving all those countries in Africa with numerous problems from poverty to war, and consider us who are relatively better off."

Zyagu Nyirenda, of Kanjedza, a township in central Blantyre, says Malawians should remember that there a more than a million orphans in the country who are, in some instances, going without food. "Let us face it here, the child was at an orphanage and none of us knew at all that he existed," says Zyagu. "Why then should some of us try to block his way to the world of comfort and happiness?"

Patricia Nambewe, a banana vendor, thinks otherwise. She says it's "pathetic" that in this era, people can be conned into "selling their children to the rich."

Local journalist Lastone Kuyewawa is worried about the message this adoption sends. "As a nation we must not set a bad precedent by allowing people, because of their status in society, to break the statutes and get away with it," he says.

"We are showing to the world that our poverty has extended to the brain."

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