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.

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.

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.

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.

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