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11-year-old Idah, in traditional Malawi dress, in the den of her family's Burlington home. (Sheryl Nadler/Sheryl Nadler)
11-year-old Idah, in traditional Malawi dress, in the den of her family's Burlington home. (Sheryl Nadler/Sheryl Nadler)

Foreign Adoption

The lessons of Idah's long journey from Malawi to Burlington Add to ...

Before Madonna, before the hype and the fury over her Malawian babies, there were the Clementinos of Burlington, Ont.

The global spotlight never fell on the Clementinos. Nobody heard of their long struggle to adopt a little girl named Idah from Malawi.

But their victory, after a four-year, $35,000 legal battle, was a precedent that paved the way for the U.S. pop superstar to adopt a pair of children from the same African country. Their story raises the same awkward issues - of poverty and culture, of deciding what is best for a child's future, and for the future of a country.

We're doing it for the good of the child. If you can make a difference, why wouldn't you?

Children like Idah - and Madonna's far more famous David and Chifundo - have sparked a fierce debate in Malawi, where activists worry that the phenomenon of foreign adoption is creating a commercial value for their children, and diverting financial resources that would be better spent on health and education.

But for her adoptive parents in Burlington, who have never been to Malawi, the issue is simpler. By removing Idah from the austere existence of an African orphanage, they believe they are giving her the nurturing that she needs to have a chance in life.

"We're not trying to remove Idah from her culture, but to give her an opportunity," says Jane Clementino, a management consultant and mother of three other children. "We're doing it for the good of the child. If you can make a difference, why wouldn't you?"

Idah, whose birth name is Effina Chulu, is now a lively 11-year-old Grade 5 student and cross-country running champion at a school in Burlington, an outer suburb of Toronto. Last month she became a Canadian citizen, the culmination of a six-year effort by Jane and Carlo Clementino.

Like Madonna, the Clementinos persuaded a court to let them bypass a law that requires them to be a "resident" of Malawi if they want to adopt a Malawian child. As a result, Idah became one of the first children in the country to be adopted by foreigners.

Children's rights groups are worried that these cases are making nonsense of their country's laws. In the past few years, they say, hundreds of children have been quietly removed from Malawi in violation of the national law and its clear requirement that only residents of the country can adopt.

But for the parents in Canada, the law is a bureaucratic obstacle that needs to be streamlined so that more children can be adopted by foreign families. With adoption in China becoming more difficult, a growing number of Canadians are turning to Africa.

Idah's journey, like that of Madonna's adopted son, David Banda, began in a village in Malawi, a small landlocked country of 13 million people in southern Africa where most people subsist on less than $2 a day.

Both children were considered orphans, although their fathers were still alive. Both were taken to an orphanage called Home of Hope in the ramshackle border town of Mchinji, near the Zambian border.

Idah was the first child to be taken from Home of Hope and brought to a foreign land. A few years later, in an eruption of global publicity, David was the last.

A brick wall surrounds the orphanage, topped by shards of broken glass to keep intruders out. "The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom," says a painted slogan on the wall.

Inside the walls are 580 children and the orphanage's founder, Rev. Thomson Chipeta, an 80-year-old Presbyterian minister.

Also inside the orphanage is Idah's father, Patrick, who works here in exchange for the food he needs for his survival. He briefly meets me at a market outside the orphanage, but is reluctant to talk. "If they see me here with you, I'll be in trouble," he says, before walking away.

There's no evidence that Mr. Chipeta is motivated by commercial factors. A former orphan himself, he seems sincere in his love of the children. Yet money, and a craving for foreign donations, is a recurring theme in almost everything he says to a foreign visitor.

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