Joan Smith: Madonna doesn't need to 'rescue' this child

The best way to help children is to improve conditions in their home country
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The Independent Online

Does she have to take her name quite so literally? I know "Madonna" is usually followed by the words "and child", but she's already got two of her own. And the idea of African orphans - some of whom are not actually orphans in the usual sense of the word, still having one parent living - being presented to the American superstar for inspection is more than a little unsettling. Especially if it's true, as reported yesterday, that Madonna presented the infants in return with a copy of her children's book The English Roses and watched them play before settling on 13-month-old David Banda.

It has to be said that the adoption had not been confirmed yesterday by the singer's spokesman, although both David's father and the man in charge of the church-run Home for Hope Orphanage, where the boy had been placed, said she had chosen him. It is certainly within the realms of possibility that local people, desperate to make the most of Madonna's visit, have jumped the gun in announcing that the adoption is a done deal; so desperate are African parents to secure a better life for their children that they frequently offer them to white visitors, a point I'll come back to in a moment.

What is so disturbing about the story is the uncritical way it has been reported in this country, where the popular press is not usually so charitable towards Madonna. A favourite game is printing unflattering photographs of the singer, drawing attention to wrinkles and other signs of ageing; another is to suggest that there are problems in her marriage to the film director Guy Ritchie. On this occasion, though, it's all sweetness and light, with approving accounts of how little Davie - as we must now call him, following the inflexible rule that children in the news for whatever reason should be treated with treacly sentimentality - was one of a number of male children lined up for the singer during her mercy mission to Malawi.

It's to Madonna's credit that she is funding a new £2m orphanage in Malawi, where 14 per cent of the population is HIV-positive and there are an estimated one million orphans. But The Sun was transfixed by the rags-to-riches element of her visit, reporting approvingly that David was leaving his "mud hut" for a new life in the US with the Queen of Pop, whose fortune it estimated at £248m. We've yet to see whether the adoption actually comes to pass but, in the meantime, there were reports that David's father, whose wife died shortly after giving birth, was "very happy" at the prospect - although I must say he didn't look it in the photographs.

This isn't surprising, given that poor parents, just like wealthy ones, want the best for their children and in this case Yohane Banda, 32, has very few choices. His wife Marita died from a fever about a week after giving birth and the poor farmer, from a village called Lipunga, is unable to support his son, so of course he's stunned by the idea of the boy being whisked away to a millionaire lifestyle. The question, though, is why he doesn't have other choices. How much would it cost to find him a decent house and set up a monthly standing order to cover basic needs and the little boy's education?

Probably around £60 a month is the answer. A friend of mine has done this for a boy she encountered by chance in Soweto, meeting his father and brother and doing what she can to ensure that the two boys have somewhere to live and a decent education. She understands the appeal of "rescuing" an African child, but she also knows why it's a very bad idea. "For white people," she says, "the seduction of being in Africa is your incredible usefulness. When you are there, dozens of people will approach you to take their children at any age. It's your absolutely human duty to resist such offers when they are made. If one wants to help in Africa, one has a far larger task than adopting a child."

It never crossed her mind to bring the boy to live in her nice flat in London and, after supporting the family in South Africa for several years, she knows exactly what problems they face and what an outsider can and cannot do to alleviate them. The chief difficulty, she says, is the absence of infrastructure and the fact that all kinds of services we take for granted are simply not available or work intermittently in Africa. (Anyone who wants to know more should read A Child Called Freedom by Carol Lee.)

Another American celebrity, Oprah Winfrey, is doing something similar on a larger scale, paying for school uniform for children in Kliptown, which is part of Soweto. None of this makes Madonna a bad person, if she really is contemplating an African adoption, but it does suggest that she and anyone else who is tempted to "rescue" a black child from poverty should think twice. In fact, non-resident adoptions are normally banned in Malawi, for very good reasons; children are a nation's future and the best way to help them is to improve conditions in their home country, which includes addressing the problem of maternal mortality.

Childbirth is hugely more dangerous in developing countries, and women in sub-Saharan Africa face a one in 16 risk of dying from complications over their lifetime, compared to one in 2,800 in developed regions. In fact, Malawi has the third highest risk of maternal mortality in Africa, which means that what happened to David Bandu's mother is both tragic and all too common.

It's easy to see how such points are missed when journalists fall, as Madonna seems to have done, for the romance of Africa. Something similar happened in the Nineties when well-meaning British families rushed to adopt Romanian orphans, applying individual and solipsistic solutions to a huge social problem. Of course individual children benefited from some of these adoptions, although others had severe behavioural problems after what was effectively sensory deprivation in grim orphanages.

People are less likely to think straight about children than almost any other subject. Pictures of small children tug the heart strings, and reports of Madonna carrying an African child in a sling on her back suggest that she is living out a fantasy about a more primitive and engaged form of motherhood than we are used to in wealthy countries.

It would be unkind to describe these transactions as a trade, but they are a form of migration which is as much about fulfilling the needs of Western adults as helping children from poor countries. The singer's intentions may have been misinterpreted on this occasion, but in any case children like David Banda are better off with their birth parents than a stranger - even if she's one of the most famous women in the world and goes by a name as iconic in Western culture as Madonna.

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