April 5, 2009
Madonna adoption row: How Mercy divided Malawi
When Madonna lost her fight to adopt a second African orphan yesterday
many local people were delighted - but by no means all
Alex Duval Smith in Lilongwe
The Guardian, Saturday 4 April 2009
This is the story of two single mothers in Malawi - one unknown and
dirt poor, the other famous and unimaginably wealthy. And it is the
story of how the fate of one became intertwined with the fate of the
The first, 14-year-old Inness, was 11 when her mother died in the
village of Falls, in Mwanza district. She was 13 when her father died.
That is when Inness sold the family bicycle, left school and became a
single mother, taking care of her three younger siblings.
The second, 50-year-old Madonna Ciccone, is also a single mother-of-
three - but is keen to adopt another child. She is unlikely ever to
have to sell her private jet for food. Indeed, she used it to fly to
this southern African country last Sunday, becoming, for some
observers, a living caricature of so much of what is wrong with the
Yet yesterday this rich and powerful American was unexpectedly knocked
back by a high court judge sitting in the unprepossessing single-
storey brick courthouse in the capital, Lilongwe. Judge Esmie Chondo
put a halter on Madonna's relentless can-do personality - for now, at
least - when he ruled that she should not be allowed to adopt Chifundo
James - the three-year-old "sister" she had intended for her first
Malawian adoptee, David, also three. The singer, he said, did not
fulfil the legal requirement of having been resident for 18 months in
Malawi - a stipulation that was controversially waved when the singer
adopted David in 2006.
The court's stand pleased local human rights campaigners who opposed
the adoption. "We are delighted that the courts have upheld the law of
the land - weak as it is," said Mavuto Bamusi, head of Malawi's Human
Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC). "[The courts have] avoided
setting an example that would have opened the floodgates for people to
come and take children from Malawi. We were very concerned that, first
in the case of David, and now with the second child, a precedent would
have been set allowing adoptive parents to escape the requirement of
18 months' residency."
Bamusi claims Malawi's adoption process is beset by bribery. "We are
not saying Madonna has paid any illicit money but we have found
evidence of six adoptions to Holland having been fast-tracked," he
The ruling has raised hopes that despite endemic corruption, Malawi's
judiciary still retains some independence. It will be also welcomed by
allies of President Bingu wa Mutharika - a Roman Catholic who preaches
abstinence in the battle against Aids and is known to share Zimbabwean
president Robert Mugabe's hatred of imperialist bullying. And Judge
Chondo's decision will please those westerners, too, who are irritated
by Madonna's celebrity activism.
But some Malawians argue that the ruling does little for Inness and
the rest of the country's estimated 1.5 million orphans - and may even
reduce their chances of survival. The greatest fear many Malawians
were expressing yesterday was that the "white singer", as she is
known, will turn her back on dozens of initiatives she is supporting
here, including funding for schools and orphanages like the one which
now cares for Inness and two of her siblings.
In the slippery backstreets of Lilongwe's central market, poverty is a
matter of life and death. Which is why trader Patricia Kamphande, 24,
was furious at yesterday's decision. She dreams of Madonna swinging
past one day and offering to take away her only son, Dyton, five. "The
oyimba [white woman] is good," said Kamphande, who sells woven plastic
shopping bags next to a pirate CD stall. "She has built an orphanage
for Malawi. She took away David a few years ago but she does as she
promised - she brings him back on visits to see his father." Kamphande
is not star-struck; merely stricken with the realities of everyday
life. She knows Madonna is a white singer from America but cannot
think of one of her songs. The owner of the CD stand reminds her of
Like a Virgin but doesn't have a copy; local reggae sells better in
Lilongwe. Kamphande is emphatic: "I would give my child to Madonna, of
course, or to any other white lady willing to take him to Europe and
give him an education. Maybe he would come back one day and be an
Obama for us."
Nearby, Margaret Esau, 33, sells lemons, bananas and sweet potato
leaves from a bowl on the ground. "The singer cannot take the girl?
That's terrible," she said. "Which Malawian would want to stop her
from giving one of our children such an opportunity? That Malawian
should come forward and explain who is going to feed the girl now."
Mac Gwerere, a welder, said most Malawian parents would be delighted
to have a foreigner interested in adopting their child. "It happened
to me. A French woman wanted my son. My wife and I thought about it
very hard but eventually decided that we would keep him because he is
not an orphan, we brought him into this world, and we must be
responsible for him.
"The temptation is great," Gwerere, explains, "because the cost of
bringing up children is high. When you have that conversation with the
white person, you only think of the benefits and the relief; you don't
imagine that you might never see the child again."
Malawi, a landlocked, almost entirely agrarian country with a
population of 14 million, suffers from the same demographic imbalance
as Zimbabwe and Zambia. Aids, malaria and tuberculosis have eaten away
the goodwill and resources of extended families. Life expectancy is 40
and one in five children do not make it to the age of five. For many,
education is a distant dream. Only 18% of children go to secondary
school and those who do face pupil-teacher ratios of 114 to one.
Until 1994, Malawi was a dictatorship led by Hastings Banda, who ruled
for 33 years. Families were encouraged to spy on one another and
report dissident behaviour. Bakili Muluzi, the first democratically
elected president after Banda's demise at the age of 99, served two
five-year terms that were blighted by corruption.
President Mutharika, who faces an election next month in which Muluzi
is again a candidate, has clamped down on corruption and instigated
successful agrarian programmes to end starvation. But corruption and
all that goes with it - lack of transparency, impunity and a faltering
justice system - remain very much part of Malawian life.
It was in October 2006 that Madonna and her then husband, Guy Ritchie,
flew into a bemused Malawi to adopt 18-month-old David Banda. At the
time, the singer was little known there, but everyone knew she was
rich and her plan to adopt David warmed the hearts of Malawians when
she promised not only to bring him back regularly to see his father,
Yohane, but also to start a charity for the country, Raising Malawi.
David's adoption was shrouded in confusion, including claims his
biological father had only reluctantly let him go. Chifundo's adoption
was expected to be easier as the child has no surviving parent, and
only a grandmother had expressed reservations.
On the other hand, having split up from Ritchie in the past few
months, Madonna is now a soon-to-be divorced single parent - of David,
but also Lourdes, 12, and Rocco, eight. There was speculation
yesterday that in Mutharika's Catholic Malawi, it was Madonna's change
of status that informed the judge's decision.
But the high court also had compelling evidence in Madonna's favour.
Thanks to support from Raising Malawi, David's decrepit former
orphanage, Home of Hope, near the Zambian border in Mchinji, now has
six new dormitories, play areas, toys, and extra staff. The charity
also supports a feeding programme and a project for street children in
the commercial capital Blantyre, funding for malaria nets and dental
care. It has donated seed and fertiliser to Mutharika's agrarian
revival. More controversially, schooling is provided using the
mysterious Spirituality for Kids method, created by the Kaballah sect,
of which Madonna is a follower.
Through her charity work, Madonna met Inness once. For about a year
after their father's death Inness and her siblings received food from
neighbours and support from social workers. But after the government
reclaimed their house, a social worker approached the Home for Hope
orphanage. It took the family in.
Its director, Rev Thomas Chipeta, says Inness's story is typical and
is quick to defend Madonna. "She did not just come and take David
away. Her plan for Chifundo was also honourable. Our orphanage used to
be so rough and ready but now 600 children can, at least, hope to
survive - maybe even do something with their lives." Even the local
opponents of Madonna's attempted adoption stop short of criticising
her. "We do not object to Madonna," Bamusi says. "We are grateful for
her work in Malawi."
Since the confusion about David's adoption, the HRCC - an umbrella
group of trade unions and non-government organisations - has lobbied
parliament to pass a child protection act. The current law is so weak
that commercial adoption agencies list Malawi as an "easy" country
from which to obtain children. But amid an almost constant government
crisis since the last election in 2004, MPs have not attended to the
"Until our laws are brought into line with international treaties, we
are stuck with a case-by-case situation and a lot of loopholes that
could encourage child-trafficking," Bamusi says. "That is what Madonna
and others could exploit and it gives an impression of statelessness,
of a country that is incapable of taking care of its people. Madonna
should continue with her projects here but taking one, two or even six
or seven children out of Malawi is not going to solve the problem of
our 1.5 million orphans."
But there's the rub - will Madonna continue her good works in Malawi
if she can't have a second child to take home? It's a question Bamusi
won't answer - rightly so, because Madonna is the rest of the world's
problem. Malawi's problem is the need to create accountable
governance, a functioning democracy and, with it, true sovereignty.