Parenthood by piggyback

"What is it with celebrities and African babies?" asked a Guardian columnist after the news first broke that Madonna was adopting a 13-month-old Malawian boy. The writer, herself an adopted African, denounced it as a "vanity project", taking umbrage at Madonna's assumption that she was somehow "saving" the infant from a life of misery.

Well, that's one way of looking at it. Another might be to pose the question: "What is it with westerners and the nuclear family?" For, in slamming the singer, the writer (her skin colour notwithstanding) was unhesitatingly applying the values of her adoptive culture.

Time and again we project on to Africa's inhabitants the priorities and options that rule our own lives. At the base of most of the criticism of Madonna's adoption - and boy, has she been getting it in the neck - lies a vision of family life that weds Weetabix to Bluewater. You know the one I mean: the neat family unit that supposedly eats, sleeps and tours shopping malls together, adults and offspring happily pressed cheek by jowl from birth to maturity. Anything that strays from this cloying model, we regard as an aberration.

Only, in my experience, that's not the way Africans run their families. They just can't afford to. On a continent where treatable diseases each year claim the lives of four million children under the age of five, 250,000 mothers die from childbirth, and 40 million children can't afford to attend school, raising all your children under one roof is more than many families can manage.

No, the canny African parent identifies which member of the extended family or network of friends has done best, then piggybacks on their success by sending them a child to raise. The richer the chosen patron, the more likely this de facto adoption is to succeed, so Madonna makes a pretty perfect candidate.

It's not that Africans love their children any less than westerners. But this is the pragmatic and sensible thing to do, and the best way of boosting an offspring's chances of survival.

Virtually every urban middle-class African family I've met has at some point had one, if not several, extra "brothers" and "sisters" parked in their household, sometimes for decades at a time. The family finds itself paying for school and university fees, even weddings. The family members may resent the extra burden (and hence the difficult lives farmed-out children often lead), but they know it's their duty.

Yohame Banda, the adopted child's father, knows exactly how hard it can be for a baby to reach adulthood in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. With a baby and toddler already dead of malaria and a wife who expired shortly after giving birth, this farmer has lived the statistics. Today, he will be rightly congratulating himself not only on giving his son - whose life expectancy until this month stood at roughly a pathetic 38 - a huge step up on the ladder of life, but on having improved the whole extended family's prospects. Because when David Banda grows up, you can bet your bottom dollar he will return to Malawi to build his folks a school and hospital. If a child represents a punt on the future, a well-placed child (yes, I'll dare to use that outrageous phrase) can save an entire village.

What is strange about our sniffy attitude to such survival strategies is that a hundred, even fifty years ago, westerners ran their families in exactly the same way, relying on the kindness of strangers, stretching the ties of kinship in ways that today seem either slapdash or ruthless but were, in fact, merely expedient.

When times were hard, babies were deposited with wet nurses or spinster aunts for years, only to be recovered (or discovered, sadly, to have died of neglect) when the money started coming in. Just as in Africa, you didn't have to be an orphan to end up in an orphanage: the Victorian explorer Henry Morton Stanley described a childhood meeting with a cold, hard woman who turned out to be the mother who had left him at the workhouse. Strapped for cash after the Great Depression, my own widowed grandmother sent half her brood to be raised by relatives in Canada, where they remained for seven years. When my father and his sisters returned to Britain, the youngest had no idea who the woman meeting them at the station - her mother - might be.

The psychological impact on the individuals caught up in these bleak arrangements was often hugely damaging. But needs must when the devil drives. And in Africa the devil drives with a joyrider's reckless abandon.

Those straining every sinew to sabotage this adoption might bear in mind that Africa could soon have 18 million children orphaned by Aids and needing to be fed, clothed and educated, a challenge it is the least equipped of continents to meet. It is estimated that Malawi, where the average family has six children, has about a million Aids orphans. We can choose to engage with the world as it is, or live in a world of make-believe.

Whatever the grandstanding activists in Malawi and a horde of malevolent commentators here would have us think, David Banda has been a very lucky boy.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Emergency: How only carbon rationing can save the world