Madonna’s Adoption Troubles a Mirror for Africa

Apr 3, 2009 1:33pm

ABC News Digital’s Dana Hughes reports from Nairobi:

Shock went around the world when a Malawian judge denied the petition of pop superstar Madonna to adopt a second child from the southern African country. Last week, the 50-year-old singer and her three children flew to Malawi, hoping to finalize the adoption of 4-year-old Mercy James, a little girl living in an orphanage. But there was just one problem. Malawi’s adoption laws are strict; international prospective parents must have resided in the country for 18 to 24 months prior to adopting. Madonna, who has donated millions of dollars to various causes in Malawi and even made a documentary about its children, still has never resided there. On those grounds, the judge in the case rejected her request today.

“Put simply, courts do not make law by the process of precedents and Miss Madonna may not be the only international person interested in adopting the so-called poor children of Malawi,” the judge stated. “By removing the very safeguard that is supposed to protect our children, the courts, by their pronouncements, could facilitate the trafficking of children by some unscrupulous individuals who would take advantage of the law of the land.”

Most Africans I’ve talked to don’t think letting Madonna adopt the girl will open the floodgates to children being trafficked out of Malawi; after all, she had the law waived when she adopted her son David Banda three years ago. But there is a sense of uneasiness. I keep hearing the questions: “This girl has a grandmother and uncles nearby. Why doesn’t she give money to the family so that they can raise her?” and “Why does she think she shouldn’t have to follow the law? Because she’s rich and American and this is Africa?”

Malawi’s adoption laws are actually quite similar to those in most African countries. In Kenya, for example, a family must reside in the country for at least a year before beginning adoption proceedings. I’ve interviewed an American family who actually spent more than a year here and nearly $100,000 to get through the bureaucracy of a Kenyan adoption only to be told they couldn’t adopt one child and had to take another.  In Rwanda, which has hundreds of thousands of orphans as a result of the country’s genocide and subsequent AIDS epidemic, some officials have said they do not want masses of foreigners adopting the orphaned children, calling the prospect “another form of genocide.” 

Even the idea of official adoption is a foreign concept to most African cultures where tradition dictates that children belong not to individual parents, but to entire villages. Here, if a parent dies, a grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin or family friend takes the child in. In the past, the idea of an orphan simply didn’t exist. But that was before AIDS and urbanization and long-standing brutal wars. Now, in many countries, there are more orphans than communities willing and able to care for them.

Malawi, devastated by the AIDS epidemic, has nearly 2 million orphaned children. Supporters of Madonna argue that the controversy shouldn’t be over her possibly skirting the adoption laws, but whether the laws are still in the best interest of the children or the country.  Those supporters include officials from the Malawian government.

“We can’t look after all [the orphans] as a country,” Women and Child Welfare Development Minister Anna Kachikho told the Associated Press. “If people like Madonna adopt even one such orphan, it’s one mouth less we have to feed.”

With tens of millions of orphans throughout the continent having no place to go and no one to care for them, the debate over Madonna’s efforts represents more than just a challenge to Malawi’s adoption laws. It speaks to fundamental African families value, and how they may be changing whether Africans like it or not.

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