Rehearsals in the Warehouse, Blantyre for Mercy Madonna of Malawi

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July 2009 Scotland on Sunday

THIS morning the Kumbali Cultural Village is deserted. It's just us and a cluster of mud huts surrounding a thatched amphitheatre, its stage open to the sky.

A couple of months ago, here on the outskirts of Lilongwe, it was all different. With a flurry of excitement, Madonna, that most Western of pop stars, came to be entertained by a Malawian theatre troupe on this very stage. With press and paparazzi kept well away, she made the short journey down the dirt track from Kumbali Lodge, her upmarket base in Malawi, bringing 24 bodyguards – nine local, the rest from her own staff – to make an unlikely audience for the afternoon show.

The play she watched was about a returning expat who won't stop complaining about the state of Malawi compared with his adoptive home in the West. Only after being seduced by the rhythms of a traditional African dance does he realise how much the lifestyle of the azungo (the Malawian word for white man) has stressed him out. "Azungos do everything by the clock," he says. "Now I'm realising that all the white people have got watches, but we Malawians have got the time."

It was a wise observation, but from the audience, Madonna took it as her cue. "No, you don't have the time," heckled the original Material Girl. "You need to work hard. Money is the answer to everything."

For performer Shambi Banda, Madge's remark summed up the moral dilemma this rich white woman presents. She was in the country to adopt four-year-old Mercy James, a sister for David Banda, yet everything she represents seems at odds with Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries. "Personally, it has brought a lot of drama in my head," he says today. "How many kids are orphans in the world; why has she chosen Malawi? There are some areas where we Malawians are a little bit lazy. Whenever someone wants to tamper with the constitution of Malawi, as long as he or she has got cash, we just say yes."

Photoshoot in Blantyre for Mercy Madonna of Malawi

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It is this tension between rich and poor that underscores Mercy Madonna Of Malawi, an upbeat musical coming to the Edinburgh Fringe that gives a distinctively African spin on the pop star's adventures in this far-off landlocked country. Directed by Toby Gough – whose previous Fringe successes include Children Of The Sea, which was performed by survivors of the Asian tsunami – it fuses traditional Malawian dance with Western-influenced music to question the rights and wrongs of a contentious story. Against expectation, the show does not paint Madonna as the villain, however, although having her played by a tall black man in a blonde wig gives you some idea of the play's knockabout irreverence. That's because the disquiet expressed by Banda is far from universal among Malawians. On the show's first public performance in a remote village deep in the countryside near Mulanje mountain, I see this for myself. Quizzed by an actor playing a TV reporter outside the Blantyre courtroom, the audience of villagers are united in their opinion that Mercy James should be allowed to go with the pop star. However hard the actor tries, there is not a single dissenting voice.

"In Malawi we have so many kids suffering, so if we have someone who says she is capable of looking after them, we don't have problems giving them away," says Ben Michael Mankhamba, the country's leading political songwriter, who has contributed a number of songs to the show.

"It's better the kids have a better life than be suffering here. You can't look after everybody, so if somebody comes and picks two or three, it's better for them. Some people are lucky, some are unlucky, so let's not bar the chances for others. People who are graduating from universities all want to leave Malawi, so why should we stop a kid? My only view is that now and then they should be bringing them back to the original country, so they don't forget it."

Such opinions highlight the economic disparity between the developed and developing worlds. Many Malawians see it as a great opportunity to be taken under the wing of a wealthy Western pop star – even if her music is known only hazily ("I knew her from the radio, not from the looks," says Ben Michael). Few are troubled that the supreme court judges effectively exempted Madonna from the law that adoptive parents must live in the country for 24 months as well as be married.

Nobody knows too much about Kabbala, the mystical branch of Judaism to which the star subscribes, but a leftfield religion seems a fair price to pay in return for the work of her Raising Malawi children's charity. Above all, they're glad David Banda and Mercy James have a chance to better themselves in the West – and maybe they'll return one day to make use of their wealth and education.

Talking to people here, you start to wonder if objecting to Madonna is a privilege only rich Westerners can afford. Would the story remind me of the dark days of the colonial slave trade, which David Livingstone campaigned against in this very country, if I weren't an oversensitive white man? After all, Madonna clearly wants to love and care for her children – and she wasn't to know that both fathers are still around – so what harm can it do?

First performance of Mercy Madonna of Malawi in a remote village near Mulanje mountain

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Maxwell Matewere has some answers. He is executive director of Eye of the Child, the campaigning watchdog that objected to both of Madonna's adoptions in court. Over tea in a Blantyre hotel, he explains in lawyerly detail how different such cases look the moment you put the interests of the child at the heart of the argument. "We spend our time trying to change people's attitudes towards children," he says of his organisation. "If you ask most families – even members of parliament – what assets they have, they will say, 'I have a chair, a house, a car and I have children.' So children are counted as part of our assets, meaning you can do anything you want to them."

Although ultimately unsuccessful, he regards Eye of the Child's challenges to Madonna in court as important test cases that will help bring an antiquated law up to date. "I do understand the position of most of the Malawians who think this is a fantastic opportunity, but even if we had millions of orphans, should we say that they should lose some of their rights?" he says, observing that some orphanages use adoption as a way of raising money and one has even tried to auction children on the internet. "Or should we forget our responsibility as adults to care and provide protection? If Madonna comes, should we say she can have as many children as she likes? That's not on."

He believes the parent's contribution to Malawi should not be a criterion for adoption. More important is to know what provision will be made to care for and protect the child once abroad. Better still would be to find a way to support the child within Malawi. "We are afraid if we're not careful that, with this understanding, in order for a foreigner to adopt children there has to be some compensation as part of the process," he says.

"The Supreme Court mentioned that Madonna had demonstrated her commitment to Malawi (by investing in schools]. But if you have to subject adoption to that, what is your interest? Is it to find a family for the child or to find the money to contribute to the shortfalls of our system? We should look into the eyes of the children and come up with a solution to help them. We have so many children who need care, but the best solution is to find ways to care for them locally, not exporting them."

These arguments mean that when the cast gather round a cross-dressed Madonna wearing T-shirts sporting the slogan "Adopt me" with an arrow pointing to their faces, it is both funny and poignant. The show makes no comment on Madge's motives, but uses the situation to reflect – in an infectiously musical way – on a world in which the bonds of family, culture and country can be broken by the brute force of economics.

"Malawi is not as terrible as people make out; it's not a place you have to take people away from," says director Toby Gough, who created the African Julius Caesar in the country in 1998. "It's not a land of death and famine; it's a very vibrant, friendly place. One argument is that Madonna can take the child out because she's got the money to do it. The other argument is she is a woman who cares for the children of Africa and is using her money to help out. I don't think there's any right or wrong answer."

Mercy Madonna Of Malawi, St George's West, Edinburgh, 7–31 August, 3pm www.theworldfestival.com, www.edfringe.com

© Mark Fisher 2009

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