The Independent, Maxine Frith and Christopher Thompson in Lilongwe, Oct. 17, 2006
David Banda’s first year of life has been normal enough for Malawi. His mother died within days of giving birth to him, his elder brothers succumbed to malaria and his father, unable to cope, put him in an orphanage.
His future looked set to be the same as more than a million other children in Malawian orphanages: poverty, malnutrition, HIV/Aids, chronic disease and early death — life expectancy in the stricken African nation is just 40.
Yesterday, though, the 18-month-old boy’s life took an extraordinary turn; he was taken on a private jet to South Africa, accompanied by a bodyguard and a nanny, before heading for an opulent new life in London with the singer Madonna and her family.
But even as a Malawian court granted Madonna and her husband, Guy Ritchie, an 18-month interim adoption order and the right to take David out of the country, the controversy over the boy and his newly rewritten future continued.
The issue has divided campaigners in Malawi, as well as polarising debate internationally. For critics, Madonna is simply another example of the growing and distasteful trend of rich celebrities “shopping” for children to adopt from countries with which they have no ethnic ties, using their money and power to bend the rules without a thought for the children they do not choose.
For others, the singer is to be praised for helping at least one child out of poverty, in a country where a quarter of the population is infected with HIV and the majority of people live on less than a dollar a day. And for her financial aid to the others left behind.
Various lobby groups there have banded together under the umbrella organisation of the Human Rights Consultative Committee, claiming that the adoption is unlawful because Madonna has not lived in the country for 18 months, in accordance with national law.
Reports at the weekend said that an uncle of David was opposed to the process and it is unclear whether Madonna has yet been approved as an adoptive parent by the British authorities, as is required by law. The Human Rights Consultative Committee yesterday postponed its attempt to have the adoption blocked by the Malawian courts. Justin Dzodzi, who chairs the committee, said he wanted to send investigators to the village to “get a feel of what the villagers and relatives feel about the adoption and whether anyone opposes it.” But he insisted the case would go ahead, and that they would fight for David to be returned to his native country.
A Malawian government official insisted that Madonna had “been pushing papers for some time” before news of the intended adoption leaked out last week and that the rules had not been relaxed for the singer.
For some dealing with poverty, the HIV/Aids epidemic and malnutrition in the country, Madonna’s intervention is only welcome. Mirriam Nyirongo, a retired nurse who runs an orphanage in the northern Malawian town of Mzuzu, said: “ We must be frank. We can’t afford to look after the thousands of babies that are being orphaned every day. If rich people like Madonna take just one child it will be a major boost for Malawi.”
Adoption groups in Britain said at least one good thing had already come out of the brouhaha — a surge in inquiries from people about becoming parents to the thousands of children in local authority care here. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering said the number of visits to its website had increaseg greatly since it emerged that Madonna was adopting David.
Just 3,000 of the 60,000 children in care were placed with adoptive parents last year, largely because of a chronic shortage of suitable carers, particularly those willing to take older children rather than babies. The average age at adoption of a British child is over four.
A further 4,000 children were left in care, up for adoption but with no potential parents. While the need for more adopters is desperate, the process of being approved for a child and then being matched can take years.
Adoption: the facts
The British situation
* Last year, there were more than 60,000 children in the care of local authorities; 5 per cent were placed for adoption
* The average age at which a British child is adopted is four years and two months
* Only 5 per cent of children adopted last year were under a year old
* The waiting time from approval to being matched with a child and having them placed ranges from one to five years
* Thousands remain in care because there is a shortage of adoptive parents, particularly from ethnic minorities
* In 1970, 20,000 children were adopted; last year it was just over 3,000
* In addition to the 3,000 who were adopted, a further 4,000 were waiting for a permanent home to go to
* 313 children were adopted from overseas and brought to Britain last year, most of them under two years old
* Half of them were from China, where the one child per family rule has led to millions of girls being abandoned in orphanages
* Last year Romania banned foreigners from adopting amid concerns that babies were being sold for £30,000 each
* Overseas adoption can still take up to three years and cost about £15,000
* People who adopt from abroad without first being approved by the UK authorities face imprisonment under the Adoption and Children Act
* The overhaul of adoption law allows single people and same-sex couples the same rights as married couples
* Factors such as age and ethnicity, and lifestyle issues such as obesity, are considered but there are no longer rigidly enforced rules; there is no upper age limit, although applicants must be over 21
* Parents who give up their children for adoption now have a legal right to ask an intermediary body to help contact them once they are adults
* Until 1975, adopted people had no right to access their birth records
* There are an estimated one million adoptees in the UK