Parenting: Madonna, Malawi and a tale of two children

One African child dines in a Knightsbridge restaurant and the other often falls asleep hungry. Steve Bloomfield reports

Life began in very similar ways for David Banda and Lydia Solomon. David was born in the village of Lipunga, 100 miles east of Malawi's capital, Lilongwe, in September 2006. Lydia was born one month later, 10 miles down the road in Chikoi.

David's mother died in childbirth. Lydia's mother passed away when she was nine days old. David's father struggled to cope and sought help from the local orphanage. Lydia's father gave up and left her with her grandmother.

Their lives are very different now. Although the official Malawian adoption hearing isn't until 15 May, since the day Madonna plucked David out of his orphanage and began adoption proceedings 18 months ago his world has become dazzlingly luxurious. Apart from the opulent townhouse in London's Mayfair, the family own a sprawling home in Beverly Hills, an apartment in New York and a bucolic estate in Wiltshire. Lydia, meanwhile, lives in a mud-walled hut in a village with no electricity or running water, cared for by her grandmother, Evelyn Matteo.

Two weeks ago David was having dinner at the ritzy Knightsbridge restaurant San Lorenzo – where a typical Italian meal will cost £65. A local orphan care group provided milk for Lydia while she was a baby. Now they give her a small portion of maize flour each week for Evelyn to make porridge. "Many days Lydia will go to sleep hungry," Evelyn says. Evelyn makes just 60 kwacha a week – about 20p – by picking groundnuts from a nearby field.

Such a tale is far from extraordinary in a country where government officials class two million children as "vulnerable" out of a total population of 13 million. Of those, 500,000 have lost one parent, another 500,000 have lost both. Intercountry adopters are advised to keep their child in touch with their own heritage as much as possible, but going back to Malawi would be traumatic for David Banda as his life now is so dramatically different.

Most of these have lost their parents to HIV, the country's biggest killer, which has infected 14 per cent of the adult population. "Malawi is suffering from an HIV/Aids pandemic and the number of orphans is on the rise," said Malla Mabona, a senior adviser in the country's Ministry of Women and Child Development.

The number of Malawian children classed as orphans in 2004, when a survey was last completed, was 14 per cent. That figure is expected to increase to 18 per cent by 2010.

HIV not only deprives children of their parents: it takes away their childhood. A 10-minute walk from Lydia's village is the home of three children: Chifundo, 14, Jacob, 11, and Teresia, 10. Their parents died of Aids within months of each other in 1998. Their grandmother looked after them for a few years, but gradually became ill herself. For as long as Chifundo can remember he has been the family's main breadwinner.

Like Lydia's grandmother, Chifundo works long days in nearby fields picking groundnuts. He receives 15 kwacha (5p) for every 20-litre bucket he fills. If he works alone he can fill two in a day. If Jacob and Teresia help they can fill five.

But this is during the harvest season. When it is raining, there is little work to be found.

"There are days when we have nothing to eat," Chifundo says. His dream of becoming a policeman went the moment he left school and started work at the age of eight. It was the moment he lost his childhood.

"I think about it a lot, but I accept it," he says, straightening his ripped T-shirt and trying to brush the dirt off his shorts. "I am not angry. We have had to get used to it. It is the situation we have."

The villages where David and Lydia were born lie deep inside Mchinji district in the central region of Malawi. The turn-off from the main road leading to them is a red, dirt track lined with maize and tobacco fields.

Piles of freshly harvested corn lie in ox carts by the side of the road. Teenage boys cycle past with bags of tobacco precariously balanced on their backs. Women carry sacks of firewood, young girls carry as many branches as they can. It is a long way from London.

A local human rights group there claims that Madonna used her fame to bypass Malawian laws banning inter-country adoption. David's father, Yohane, has said he regrets agreeing to the adoption and has accused Madonna of cutting him out of his son's life. But few believe the court will bring David back to Malawi. Officials at the Ministry of Women and Child Development believe the move is in David's "best interests".

Evelyn Matteo has smaller, but no less significant, dreams for Lydia. "I see Lydia one day being a secretary and living in the city. She will be able to support herself and her family. That is my wish."

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