Adopt Me: on Madonna, Malawi, and Adoption

When Madonna’s Land Cruisers came barreling down the dirt road towards the orphanage, the locals thought they were ready. They had printed up t-shirts with the “Adopt Me” slogan and an arrow pointed towards their face. They were ready to run down to the main road with their shirts on, line the road out to the orphanage, and wave at the cruisers as they sped past.The shirts and plan were the brainchild of a cheeky brit who has been living and working in Mchinji (and who shall remain nameless in case he ever (cough) seeks funding from the material girl). It wasn’t meant to be a harsh protest against Madonna’s state-sanctioned violation of Malawian adoption laws; rather, a fun gag and a gentle show of solidarity among residents weary of the media spotlight in the back-and-forth between Madonna and the Malawi courts.

In the end the locals were broadsided. The cruisers came so fast and so unexpected that the protest was largely foiled, as were the courts, and some feel the entire country.

But the slogan remains and the t-shirts blanket the country. They’re for sale at Kumuzu Airport in Lilongwe, and yes, both my daughters have them.

It’s funny that you can’t go to Malawi without someone saying “oh, the orphans” or bringing up Madonna. Yes, there are orphans in Malawi. Nearly ten percent of the population are orphaned under Malawi orphan guidelines (This means their mother has died). They may still live with their father (or not), and they many of them remain cared for by their communities.

I don’t want to minimize Madonna’s commitment to Malawi’s orphans, or her commitment to raising children out of poverty. But while traveling throughout Malawi, I heard a number of arguments against her adoptions, some of which have received very little, if any coverage.

The 18-Month Rule: This one got all the press and it’s what the main issue was in the courts. Malawi law stipulates that prospective adoptive parents must live in Malawi for at least eighteen months prior to adoption. The law is set up to protect against illegal trafficking in children. At first, the Malawi courts refused Madonna’s adoption on these grounds. The opinion of the court was that it set a dangerous precedent which, while perhaps allowing one child a privileged, wealthy life, put many other children at risk of quick adoption and sale on a burgeoning international child market. Madonna’s legal brain trust ultimately convinced the Malawi courts to overturn this ruling in the adoption of her second Malawian-born child.

Community-Based Capacity: This was the biggest and most compelling (to me) argument against adoption. It’s a view held by many NGOs (Save the Children among them) and many civil society groups (85 of which came together to fight the adoption under the name Human Rights Consultative Committee). Rather than focusing on a isolated children, they would rather see the root causes of poverty addressed specifically as it relates to children. In Malawi it would work like this: the country has a long history of community-based orphan care. Many children live within a village network of extended family which care for children when their mother dies. Rather than pulling that child out of their extended family network and isolating them within an orphanage system, they would prefer that work and resources go into strengthening each community’s ability to care for its own children in need.

NOTE: the photos here are of Emmanuel, Jr. who is NOT desirous of adoption. He lives with his two sisters and both his parents in Mchinji thank you very much. He just agreed to pose for the photos with his shirt as part of the joke.