As argument rages over the rights and wrongs of Madonna's Malawi adoption, Pat Caplan searches beyond the headlines for a little more cultural understanding.
The British press has had a feeding frenzy over pop star Madonna's plans to adopt a Malawian one-year-old boy. Those who applaud what she has done see it as a chance for a very poor child to have a better life. Others see her action as selfish, motivated by a desire for publicity, and are angry that celebrity status and wealth can circumvent normal procedures. But behind it all lie differing notions of adoption.
The child, David Banda, is living in London. But the story has not ended yet, not least because Madonna and her husband, having apparently evaded rules relating to adoption in Malawi, still have to go through British court procedures before any such process can be complete.
The facts appear straightforward: the child has no mother and his father is too poor to care for him, so he was placed in a local orphanage. He is of course one of many African children who have lost one or both parents. Some are taken in by other relatives, which would have been the normal expectation until recently when the sheer number of people dying rent the extended family fabric. So many end up living in child-headed households, on the streets or, if lucky, in an orphanage. Many simply do not survive.
Madonna, who had never visited Africa before her recent trip, is an incredibly wealthy woman who has decided to do something for the poor of Malawi. In addition to donating a large sum of money for projects in the country, she wanted to adopt a child. There have been suggestions that she could have spent money helping the family or the orphanage or both, so that the boy could remain in Malawi. Furthermore, many people see all inter-country adoptions as plain wrong - "taking children out of their culture" or "rich Westerners buying the children of the South" are the commonest complaints.
On October 22, the father of the little boy, who had hitherto been quoted as saying that he was happy for his son to be adopted, stated that he had not understood what adoption meant and he certainly was not expecting to give up his rights in relation to the child.
This has a familiar ring about it. In the 1960s there were a number of "tug-of-love" cases in British courts when Nigerian parents who had placed their children in foster care, often while they studied here, returned to claim them from foster parents who had developed strong ties with them and wished to adopt them. The anthropologist Esther Goody wrote of the misunderstandings that arose from the differences between the British and Nigerian notions of fostering.
In Nigeria, as in many other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, children are often raised by relatives other than their parents. In the coastal area of Tanzania where I have carried out research for 40 years, a quarter of all children in the 1960s were being raised by grandparents, aunts or elder sisters. Childless couples would turn to relatives to "give" them a child.
But on all sides, the difference between "birth parents" and "foster parents" was very clear, and many children moved residentially between the two. As local people argued, you inherit property from your birth parents, not your foster parents, even though the latter may bear most if not all of the expenses of your upbringing. The idea of ceding all rights in relation to a child to someone else, even a close relative, is thus a strange one.
In Tanzania, I have often been asked to "take a child home". The reason people give is that I would be able to give them an education they would be unlikely to receive in a village. However, it is made clear that such a child would not only return home eventually, but that he or she would have all the normal rights and responsibilities, including caring for ageing birth parents and assisting with the education of other siblings.
It seems highly likely that David Banda's father thought of Madonna's offer in these terms. It may not have occurred to him, any more than it did to Tanzanian villagers, that such a child, reared in comfort in the West, might not want to return to Malawi, much less assist a plethora of poor relatives.
Under UK law, the rights of the child, and his or her best interests, are deemed paramount. It is difficult to argue against the view that someone brought up in luxury in the West is "better off" than one growing up in poverty in Malawi. But a child is not an isolate, he or she belongs in a series of social contexts, including a family and a culture. So "love" here is not enough. Rather, a bit more cross-cultural understanding might be what is needed.
Pat Caplan is emeritus professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the website of the Ferguson Centre at the Open University: www.open.ac.uk/Arts/ferguson-centre/