Madonna, Mercy and Malawi: her fight to adopt a second African child
Outside the dusty court in Blantyre, southern , there is a piece of paper pinned to the noticeboard with a list of the day's cases. This is Malawi's highest court, and on the list is a dispute over a boundary fence, the theft of a moped and, halfway down, in Court 2, an appeal to adopt a four-year-old girl called Chifundo "Mercy" James by an unnamed 50-year-old single mother from New York.
Across Malawi, is described as "the rich white woman". Her name, totally unknown to people here before this case, has been passed by word of mouth from market to market, and village to village, and, in the process, has mutated into "Ma Donor": the Giver.
I am in Malawi to make a documentary for Channel 4 about the real story behind Madonna's plans to adopt a second child from Malawi. I arrive in May, just after the rains, and within a mile of the airport see coffins being made on the side of the road. This is Malawi's only growth industry. There are up to a million Aids orphans here in this tiny country - I see some by the side of the road, playing under the coffins. Life expectancy here is 40; half the population are under 14. In the first village I visit - a place where Madonna is planning to invest in a new school and orphanage - the chief tells me that a child dies every three days. They bury them in a big pit.
Is it any surprise that people here tell me it is God's will that Madonna chose Malawi, one of the poorest countries on Earth, to save from poverty? It is not Mercy she is adopting, they say, it is the whole of Malawi. Blantyre owes its name to the small South Lanarkshire town that the 19th-century Scottish missionary David Livingstone came from. Crosses greet you everywhere you go, and in this predominantly Christian country Madonna is nothing short of a holy figure. Mercy is their conduit to salvation. When I use Madonna's name out loud in one village, I am told to hush. Using Madonna's name in vain could frighten her (and her cash) away forever. Given all of the above, how could anyone in the west disagree with what Madonna's doing?
The fact is that we do. Madonna is portrayed as a baby-grabbing gorgon, lambasted by everyone from Saturday Night Live to Graham Norton. I never bought this Madonna bashing.
I thought the issue was simple: she adopts orphan, child better off, end of story. But is this really the deal with Mercy, the little girl she is now fighting to adopt despite the controversy over her adoption of another Malawian child, David?
Well, firstly, Mercy is not an orphan without a family, just as David was not an orphan. Mercy has a family, and they live in a village called Zaone - a collection of huts about an hour's drive off the main (and only) asphalt road in the country. The track to Zaone winds down through high reeds and across river beds. My translator, Vitima Ndovi, tells me, as we are lurching about, that we are in the same jeep Madonna hired when she came to Malawi. Eventually the track opens out to reveal Mercy's village in a clearing, a view stretching out across a vast plain. It is beautiful. Idyllic, even. We are greeted by the chief, and his brothers, and their friends, and their brothers, and then taken to meet Lucy Chekechiwa, Mercy's grandmother, who is sitting on some earth outside her hut, waiting for me. She is as still as a rock, and for the hour or so I talk to her, does not move or stop staring far off into the distance as she recounts Mercy's story.
Lucy brought Mercy into this world. She delivered the baby yards from where we sit. Days later, Mercy's mother Mwandida Maunde, Lucy's daughter, died, bleeding out from complications after the birth. The villagers believed it was proof of what they already knew: Mwandida was cursed. She had been bewitched, falling pregnant with Mercy when just 14. This was not what they had hoped for; the village had clubbed together to pay for Mwandida to go to school; she was very bright and the great hope of Zaone. One day, she would return as a doctor, Lucy told me. But she didn't. She returned pregnant. She returned bewitched. Mwandida, they tell me, had met an 18-year-old student called James Kambewa. They met secretly at his sister's flat. Mwandida's friends at school warned her it would end terribly, but she ignored them. She was in love. And so of course it ended with Mwandida dying in childbirth. The baby was called Mercy, as if asking forgiveness from God for the shame Mercy's mother had brought on the village.
I sit with Lucy and the villagers into the night, with a vast wood fire the only light for 20 miles. They ask me if I have spoken to Mercy's father. Kambewa had disappeared after Mwandida's death, and was told that Mercy had died too. But I have no idea where Kambewa is.
However, later in my trip to Malawi, Kambewa suddenly appears out of nowhere (well, not exactly - he has been tracked down working as a night guard in Blantyre by a British tabloid). He is now in hiding in a shanty town. But Ndovi promises to help me track him down. The following night, we are standing beside a tin hut in the poorest part of a very poor town. Kambewa appears out of the dark and takes us into the hut to talk. He tells me that he opposes Madonna's adoption. He has a little English: "She is my daughter, my blood," he says. Why did he disappear? "I was frightened. I was just 18 and my family disowned me." So why has he appeared now? "The newspapers found me, I didn't find them. I thought Mercy was dead. Mwandida was my only love. I have not been with a woman since Mwandida." So does he have a chance of keeping Mercy in the country? Madonna is very powerful. "I will win somehow," he says. The dogs outside start howling and Kambewa lapses into silence.
What I do not understand is that if everyone loves Mercy so much, how did Mercy ever come to be up for adoption by Madonna? I drive back north to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, to meet Mabvuto Banda, a Reuters journalist who has been following Madonna's Malawian journey since 2006. Banda says that in order to understand the adoption, you need to understand what an orphan in Malawi is. "When children like Mercy are left in orphanages by families, it is often because the families simply can't cope for a period of time. The understanding of the families is that they will take the kids back into the family, usually after six years." Whether they can manage to do that is another matter, but the hope is always there. So it all depends on what you mean by orphan. There are plenty of HIV babies left by the side of the road who go into orphanages, Banda says. These are pure orphans. Babies who have no traceable family whatsoever. But Mercy was not one of these kids. Madonna has gone for a child with legal complications.
So how did this all start? Spool backwards three years, Banda tells me, and Guy Ritchie, Madonna's husband, is on a tight schedule, videoing the most doe-eyed children he can find in seven orphanages across Malawi. The tape is being made for his wife, Madonna, who has decided she wants to adopt from (the baby markets in Vietnam and China having closed down). From the video, she chooses one. It's a girl, and her name is Mercy. Then Madonna flies to Malawi on a "humanitarian mission". Prior to the visit, there is no mention of adoption, but, at least according to Banda, the fact is that she has already chosen a child from Ritchie's line-up and is now here to collect. Banda is scathing. "It's like slavery - 'I like this one, no maybe this one,'" he says. "But the fact is, they all need a home." Seventeen days later, a child leaves the country on a private jet bound for Madonna's home in London. But there is a twist. It is not Mercy on board; it is a boy called David.
So what happened? The story locally is that Lucy, the grandmother who sits as still as a rock in the dust of Zaone, refused to let Mercy be adopted by Madonna. And for three years - from that day in 2006 until about four weeks ago - Lucy remained implacable, resisting approaches from priests, people from the orphanage and other people she had never seen before, to persuade her to let Mercy go.
So what about David, the boy who did leave on the private jet to a new life with Madonna? Like Mercy, he had a family too. But unlike Mercy's grandmother, David's father Yohane agreed to a fast adoption, believing - according to Banda - that the arrangement was temporary; that it was the same as leaving him in an orphanage. Yohane has now gone on record saying he regrets the adoption because he did not know what he was getting into. Banda says he had to explain the adoption papers to Yohane because he couldn't read them. Madonna was interviewed on Newsnight by Kirsty Wark at the time, and said she was never told that David had a father, and I am inclined to believe her. After all, these were more complications that she didn't need.
So it was David who got the golden ticket and jetted out of the country. There followed controversy inside and outside of Malawi, but in the end the adoption was allowed to happen. Sensitive to the world's low opinion of this first adoption, however, Madonna recently brought David back for a reunion with his father. But it was reported that David did not recognise his father any more. When I ask Lucy about this, she says she knows nothing of David's story, nor the fact that Yohane, his father, has already been down the road she is about to embark on. However tough Lucy has been in resisting Madonna, Madonna has been tougher. She never gave up on adopting Mercy - not least because no one tells Madonna she cannot have what she wants. And now, after years of being told that adoption was the right thing for Mercy, Lucy caved in. In Malawi, she is an old woman and she had had enough.
Once the Mercy adoption was back on the cards, Esme Chombo, a provincial judge, ruled that the adoption was unlawful because Madonna was not a resident of Malawi.
Chombo was scornful of western attitudes towards Malawian poverty, talking in her summing up about "the so-called poor children of Malawi" and even quoting GK Chesterton in defence of the existing law, protecting these children from trafficking: "Don't take a fence down until you know why it was put up in the first place."
David's adoption had been rushed through because a court had granted an interim order. Judge Chombo said that it had been over-hasty and the same thing would not happen with Mercy. Due process needed to be followed. Now the adoption has reached Malawi's highest court, however, and Chombo may be overturned. A final decision on whether Madonna will get Mercy could be made as early as this morning.
I decide to interview the spokesman for the ministry responsible for adoptions so that he can explain to me exactly how, if Malawian law states that you must be resident in Malawi for 18 months before adopting, Madonna managed it with David in less than 18 days. And why she now seems able to do it again.
Silas Jeke, a huge man wearing a suit on a very warm day, sits before me in a plush garden in Blantyre and laughs. That's not really my area, he says. That's one for the judiciary. Perhaps he can explain how Madonna came to be assessed as a prospective parent by flying (at Madonna's expense) a social worker to London to view her home and interview her? Jeke laughs again. "I believe the appropriate procedures were followed." Talking - or not talking - with Jeke, I get the impression the government are as much bystanders in the Mercy story as the child's family. Or David's father was in David's story. There is a juggernaut at work here, it seems, and that is Madonna.
In spite of everything I had been told, however, I still cannot decide if this juggernaut is a good or a bad thing, or, indeed, where it is really heading. One thing is for sure - the woman is putting a hell of a lot of time and money into the country. She has a charity here called Raising Malawi. It is investing in orphanages and even has an educational and moral programme called Spirituality For Kids (SFK) that it wants to roll out across Malawi. Banda tells me that SFK is a Kabbalah programme.
Madonna explains in her own promotional film about her work in Malawi that SFK is about karma and getting back from God from what you put out there in the world. I wonder, however, how karma will play to a million children, orphaned by Aids? Was that God's will too? Another interpretation of this - widely held by many of the educated, urban Malawians I speak to, but certainly not by rural people who revere Madonna - is that Raising Malawi, even the Mercy adoption, is a Trojan horse for the Kabbalah takeover of a poor African state. And that if she doesn't get Mercy, she will simply move on to a more pliant poor country. Surely this a conspiracy too far?
There are certainly battle lines already drawn between the urban and the rural populations over Madonna and her plans. Mercy's uncle, Peter, who agreed to and signed the papers on the Mercy adoption on behalf of Lucy, tells me that the townspeople who are against Madonna are not going to benefit from her investment, so they can afford to criticise it. They treat villagers as stupid, and he makes a gesture grinding his thumb in the dirt. "This is where they want us to stay," he says. I wonder if this aspiration for escape - the aspiration that drove them to send Mwandida to school - has now propelled Mercy into Madonna's arms. People in the poor rural markets say again and again to me that Mercy could be like Barack Obama - she could leave a poor African state and end up president of the United States.
As for the Kabbalah movement, if it is planning a takeover of the Malawian orphanages, is that really such a bad thing? The Kabbalah-sponsored Raising Malawi charity is run by Philippe Van Den Bossche. Very little is known about him and he does not seem to like interviews. On his Facebook site, it mentions only that one of his best friends is Philip Berg, the founder of Kabbalah in the US. When I spy Van Der Bossche hanging around in sunglasses looking slightly shifty outside the court in Blantyre on the day of a hearing into Mercy's case, I am intrigued by what he is doing, and sidle up to him in an apologetic British way. "Excuse me, are you Mr Van Der Bossche? I wonder if you would mind telling me what you are doing here?" I ask. "I was just admiring what a beautiful sunny day it is here in Malawi." "It is indeed. But I'd like to talk to you about what Raising Malawi is really up to here." "And I'd rather talk about what a beautiful sunny day it is." As I sit down next to him, Van Der Bossche is besieged by other journalists from CBS, the Daily Mail and various South African papers. He smiles benignly throughout, repeating again and again what a sunny day it is.
The next day, I decide to go to Mercy's orphanage, to see for myself what Madonna's money is doing here. (The orphanage is run by Christians, but Madonna's charity is a donor.) Down a long dusty road, the Kondanani Children's Village appears out of nowhere. There is an electric fence round the collection of brightly painted Nissen huts to keep out wild dogs and journalists. But weirdly, instead of being turned away, I am allowed in by an Australian missionary called Cherie.
As far as I know, since the Madonna story blew up, no western journalist has ever been allowed in Mercy's orphanage; I guess I am lucky (or they don't want to be accused of secrecy any more). Inside, I am taken to Mercy's large communal nursery room, freshly painted and hanging with kids' pictures and messages about God's love. Children run hysterically up to the white westerner, and I find myself subconsciously deciding which would be cutest to adopt. The kids are instinctively aware that this whole process is Darwinian - it is a show - and it is survival of the cutest. I am directed round the immaculate dormitories and play areas and dining hall and creche, walking down pristine paths bordered with stones and flowers and intermittently nodding to enthusiastic, sandal-wearing volunteers.
It is all absolutely and undeniably fantastic. It looks like a 19th-century public school in a British colony in Africa - which is pretty much what it is. Everywhere across Malawi, children sit quietly by the roadside, waiting for life to do something terrible to them. Here, they run up to you speaking perfect English, each more impossibly charming and clever and funny and take-home-able than the last. It has an air of John Wyndham about it - there is something a little unnerving about the manic positivity and the mindbending contrast between this and the utter desolation of life the other side of the electric fence. It is too much. I ask a group of children a little older than Mercy where she is. "She's gone," a little boy in glasses says. "We are sad, because she was our friend." (I later hear that Mercy has been taken by a nanny to a secret location in the north, ready for the adoption.) Would these children also like to be adopted? "We would like to leave and come back as a nurse," they say (sounding a little rehearsed, perhaps). One girl says she would like to be TV presenter "on God TV".
I leave the orphanage thinking that if Madonna could roll this out across Africa, even if it involved lots of people signing up to Kabbalah, how could that not be a good thing? David Livingstone came to this country with a Bible in his hand; Madonna comes wearing Kabbalah wristbands. What is for sure is that colonialism is not a thing of the past. In Malawi, it's still alive and well, and it's just got a whole lot more showbiz.
• Jacques Peretti's documentary Madonna and Child will be on Channel 4 later this month.