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Material Mom

Madonna visits with children during her trip to Malawi, where she adopted a boy.
Madonna visits with children during her trip to Malawi, where she adopted a boy. (By Shavawn Rissman -- Associated Press)

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, October 20, 2006

It would be easy to ridicule Madonna for her "I'll take that one over there" adoption of a baby from an orphanage in Malawi. But it would be wrong.

No, really, it would be wrong.

Granted, the Material Girl makes it hard to take her side. For those who haven't been following the story, Madonna has ostentatiously joined the rush of Beautiful People to the villages and shantytowns of Africa, where there is a wealth of poverty and suffering to bemoan. She picked Malawi, a small, impoverished, AIDS-stricken nation in southern Africa and has pledged to donate $3 million for programs to help poor children.

While visiting Malawi last week, Madonna and her husband, British film director Guy Ritchie, adopted a baby boy. The 13-month-old child, David Banda, was living in an orphanage but is not in fact an orphan -- his mother died, and his father, Yohane Banda, felt he was too poor to take care of him.

Critics howled at the news. It seemed that photogenic, impoverished Third World children had become the latest celebrity accessories -- Brangelina already have theirs, so does Meg Ryan, so why not Madonna and Guy? If this isn't just an exercise in narcissism, then how did Madonna's trip come to be so lavishly chronicled in Hello, a glossy British magazine?

And didn't Madonna essentially purchase the child? The law supposedly requires parents to live in Malawi for a year before adopting, but a Malawian court instantly granted Madonna and Ritchie an interim adoption order. The obvious question is whether the rules would be so flexible for someone who didn't have $3 million to donate.

The celebrity couple ended up flying home alone. But while commentators were still debating whether Madonna and Ritchie had the right to take the boy out of Malawi, a nanny was quietly dispatched to fetch him. David was flown by private jet to South Africa, then on to London via a commercial flight to join his new family. In the days since, Madonna has been called a baby-stealer, a publicity hound, even a monster -- and, as far as I can tell, she doesn't deserve a bit of this abuse.

I've been trying to figure out the difference between celebrity foreign adoption and regular-person foreign adoption, and I can't find any. Cross-cultural and cross-racial adoption is always fraught with complicated, nuanced issues, and those issues are the same whether the adoptive mother is Madonna or somebody you've never heard of. Subtle shades of gray don't resolve to black and white just because the new parents are celebrities.

Madonna says that the adoption was hardly a whim, that she had been considering it for some time. Certain Malawian laws seem to have been interpreted broadly. I doubt it's the first time such a thing has happened.

Is she a fit adoptive parent? It's true that Madonna toils day and night to maintain a scandalous persona, that she once posed raunchily for a coffee-table book called "Sex," that she subjected herself to mock crucifixion in recent concerts, that she -- well, you know all about Madonna's career. But she has two older children, and there's never been a question about her dedication or skill as a mother. If we were talking about Michael Jackson or, say, Courtney Love, that would be different. But Madonna seems like a pretty decent mom.

David's father supports the adoption and says he is happy his son will be well cared for. The cultural question is not an easy one -- is it right to divorce a child so thoroughly from his roots? But that's an unavoidable question in any foreign adoption, and if it's okay for a childless American couple to adopt a baby from China or Russia or El Salvador, then why is it wrong for a wealthy, famous Anglo-American couple to adopt a baby from Malawi?

Madonna and Ritchie are white and their adoptive child is black. A few decades ago, that might have been worthy of more than a few seconds' thought. By now we've gotten used to seeing children who don't look exactly like their parents.

Yes, critics point out, but there are hundreds of thousands of orphans in Malawi, millions of others in the rest of Africa. There are orphans in Britain, in the United States. What Madonna has done is purely symbolic and doesn't really change anything for the better.

That's the big picture, all right, but it's wrong to ignore the little picture. With his biological father's blessing, David Banda is embarking on a new life full of unimaginable options. I just can't believe he was better off abandoned in that orphanage.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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