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The Best Thing In The World
By Oona King

Oona King and son IlyaThis article by Oona King first appeared on and appears to be inspired by Madonna's recent attempts to adopt African baby David Banda.

Earlier this year I stood in the dusty doorway of an African orphanage in the Congo, rage consuming me as I watched two babies moan in pain. They were covered in flies and filth, misery etched on their faces. Their eyes were sealed with mucus. Tiny stick arms hung limply over distended stomachs.

For these children, there was no chance of adoption, let alone a new home with celebrity millionaires. Less than 100 yards away was the room they would move to within the next fortnight. The mortuary.

I have been visiting Rwanda, the Congo and their destitute children for nearly a decade now. My former job as a Member of Parliament often took me to war-torn corners of the world and, over time, I developed a special interest in the Great Lakes region of Africa and its struggle to recover from the genocide of 1994.

I still go there in my new role as a writer and campaigner, and it was an attempt to raise awareness of the humanitarian disaster taking place that had taken me back on this occasion.

As someone of African descent, I have always felt a connection with that part of the world. But there was an even more personal reason for visiting these orphanages over the years - I had long wanted to start a family of my own and adopting from a children's home like this one in the Congo would have been the perfect solution.

In the end, it was not to be. The bureaucracy involved was overwhelming, as was the cost. Like countless others in my situation, I eventually conceded defeat.

The coverage of Madonna's attempt to adopt 13-month-old David Banda has brought these heart-wrenching visits very much back to mind - along with a sense of anger that so many thousands of African children remain in desperate need of help, even though there are British families only too willing to embrace them.

Little David's community lives cheek-by-jowl with poverty and disease. His two older brothers are already dead. Yet even now the criticisms are flying thick and fast, although the truth about the extraordinary events of the past few weeks remains unclear.

Madonna is accused of 'purchasing' a child in contravention of Malawi's normal rules, 'stealing' him away from his heritage. It is a charge she denies absolutely but the very idea of adoption from abroad has been attacked.

Having trodden the same path as Madonna and her husband Guy Ritchie, I beg to differ.

Yes, there are questions about how this fits with their celebrity lifestyle. But given the scale of the misery I have seen in countries such as Malawi as well as the Congo, I am convinced that it should be made far easier for overseas adoption to go ahead, not harder as some suggest.

It is nearly a decade since I first started to think about having a child of my own. I had met my husband Tiberio, a media executive, when we were both working in Brussels and in 1994 we married.

Tiberio was always family minded in that typically Italian way. He came from an extensive clan in Naples and he looked forward as much as me - sometimes more than me - to starting his own family. At first I assumed motherhood would happen naturally - he was 31, I was 26. When I finally became pregnant in 2000 I was delighted. Even though it resulted in a miscarriage, I was grateful that I could at least get pregnant naturally, and I assumed it would happen again. It didn't. I signed up for IVF but despite five attempts - including three full cycles - it proved fruitless and demoralising.

The expense was incalculable and the process was traumatic, a hellish big dipper of emotions made worse because the doctors insisted I was the perfect candidate with the maximum chance of success. Time after time something went wrong and we had to start again.

So by 2003, when I was a Labour MP for the East End constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow, I felt that it was adoption or nothing.

My first thought was to look abroad and, in particular, to Africa. If I was going to find a child it made sense to adopt one in the greatest need. I loved the idea of nurturing a relationship between my baby and its birth-country because I felt this was part of my own heritage too.

But adoption from the Congo and neighbouring Rwanda proved near impossible. Neither country had signed an adoption treaty with Britain, so there were no systems in place. After extensive research, I concluded there was no reliable source of help or advice and no way of establishing even the most basic information about the children I might hope to adopt.

Moreover, the British authorities charged steep fees for vetting prospective parents. The 'price' of adoption had never occurred to me before. The home assessment is free if you adopt a British child but it costs at least £3,000 if you want to adopt from abroad and that comes on top of flights, legal costs and other charges that can range from £5,000 to £35,000.

There is nothing like fertility treatment to destroy your finances - and there is nothing quite like pricing up babies to destroy your spirit.

Some couples adopt from America where, for a variety of cultural and legal reasons, newborn babies are more readily available than in the UK. American children often have a price tag of about £30,000, which includes agency fees, expenses and legal documents. When I said I couldn't afford that, I was told that black babies were a bit cheaper.

My first reaction was absolute outrage. My second reaction was 'how much cheaper?' But the £5,000 racism discount still left African-American babies beyond our price range.

Of course, foreign adoption will not solve the deep-rooted problems facing the developing world. But it seems strange that it is increasingly viewed as a part of their difficulties. It is actually frowned upon. Overseas adoption is so rare in Britain that it amounts to less than a trickle - fewer than 400 children in 1994, compared with several thousand in France and Germany. Many prospective adopters simply give up.


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