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Inside Dateline: In search of the biological dad of Madonna's new baby

Producer Bradley Davis writes a dispatch from Malawi.

Oct. 31, 2006 |

In search of the biological father of Madonna's adopted child (Bradley Davis, Dateline producer on the field in Malawi)

Day 1, October 26
I receive a call from the senior producers at Dateline, who explain that we need to send a producer to Malawi to get the full story of Madonna’s adoption.  . We need some first-hand reporting on the child’s adoption.  I have traveled to countries across the globe, but aside from a brief vacation in Egypt,  I have never been to Africa. (And as anyone in Africa will tell you, Egypt is not Africa). I decide I’m up to the challenge, but I have to move quickly. I book myself on a flight from New York to London that night—dash home, pack a few clothes, some research and my i-Pod for the many flights, and I’m off.

Day 2:  October 27
On Friday I connect with veteran NBC cameraman Howard Smith and soundman David Moodie at Heathrow in London..  While I’m already jet-lagged from the London flight, I join the crew and hop on a flight to Nairobi, Kenya, where we change planes to reach Lilongwe, Malawi on Saturday, October 28.

Day 3, October 28
Howard, David and I arrive in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, in the morning on Saturday. I’ve been on planes for nearly 20 hours, and have barely slept a wink. But I keep running on my newfound adrenaline as I meet people in this poverty-stricken but beautiful country. Through some contacts, I have arranged for us to interview David’s father, Yohane Banda, later that afternoon.  The crew and I jump in a van and with the help of our Malawian guide, Gracious (he was aptly named), we head out to find Yohane.   As we get in the van and start driving, I realize that this experience will become seared in my memory. Malawi is a geographically small country in Africa, but one of the continent’s most densely populated—it has 93 people per square mile.  As we drive along the streets and highways, I immediately notice one thing:  virtually everyone I see appears to be in their 20s or early 30s. Looking at them and researching the country’s history in my guidebook, I realize that the key reason for that is three initials:  HIV.  Like so many countries in Africa, Malawi has been devastated by the HIV virus and AIDS.  Once we get out of the city, we see a country full of small villages and towns with no electricity and running water.  It’s a very poor country, but fortunate compared to many of its neighbors because there is relatively little civil strife or violence.

Later that afternoon on Saturday, Gracious drives us for 3 hours outside the capital.  Yohane’s village is close to Malawi’s border with Zambia—quite a trek, as I soon learn.  The crew and I are in his old, beat-up minivan driving on the bumpiest dirty road we have ever experienced.  As we bump along we’re told by locals that Yohane is in this village...or no, that village... just up ahead.  Nobody seems to be able to find him.  We’re getting frustrated.  Finally we reach a village near Yohane’s. 

, and we set up our camera for me to interview him.  With all of the headlines of the past few days, I remain impressed by Yohane and his composure.  He has obviously been through a great deal of tragedy in his life, with the loss of two previous children and baby David’s mother.  When you understand his loss, the thought that he could be pleased with Madonna’s adoption of his son David makes perfect sense.  , and his infectious smile could win over any cynic.  He tells me about David and his hopes for his future in Madonna’s care.  And he tries to “set the record straight” about his own feelings about the adoption.  While we have an interpreter for the interview, the language barrier is still a problem.  David has done several interviews with Western media, and he seems to have “changed his tune” each time on his feelings about the adoption.  I can’t help but think that language has greatly complicated this. As he speaks his native Chichewa language, I’m concerned that our interpreter is embellishing much of what he is saying; I’m not sure I really trust the translation.  It’s a concern that I’ll later relay to New York to make sure we have the translation double-checked.  After our interview with Yohane, one of his relatives asks us for money, but I refuse.  I explain that as journalists we can’t pay for interviews.  The relative walks away in a huff.  According to subsequent local news reports, after that Yohane  refuses to give any more interviews unless he is paid.  One crew reportedly had to stay overnight in his village, trying to convince him to talk to them without a payment.  I’m relieved that we may have gotten our interview done just in time.  I don’t necessarily think Yohane is out for money, but I think he is been pushed by these relatives to ask for it, based on my experience.  These are very poor people, and with all this media attention, I can’t say I’m surprised.

Day 3, October 29
After a long Saturday trekking along the dirt roads near Yohane’s village, my crew and I come to .  This is the orphanage that was caring for little David when Madonna first learned of him.  As we talk to the Reverend Chipeta and his daughter Lucy who run the orphanage, I am immediately struck by the sheer number of children they must look after.  It’s a total of nearly 500 children, with fewer than fifteen buildings that are equipped to house them (again, with no running water or electricity in most of them).  A number of the children have lost their parents to HIV, and it becomes clear that the Home of Hope is a place for children with little hope.  Little David is an exception.  Madonna may adopt him, but who will adopt the other 499 children?   As I look at their faces—many smiling and laughing, others crying—I can’t help but think that the media frenzy of this Madonna story may at least shed light on their lives and provide a glimmer of hope. ()

That evening back at our hotel, Howard, David and I put together the interviews and footage we’ve recorded and use a brand-new technology to send some of the video material back to New York.  The process is called “Store Forward”, and it allows us to send video from a laptop from virtually anywhere in the world.  Soundman and engineer David Moodie sits outside our hotel on the grass under the stars, banging out the program on the laptop.  A bunch of frogs in a nearby pond croak into the night. It takes some time, but our tech-savvy David gets the material out.  I’m told it’s the first time this technology has been used for a Dateline or Today Show broadcast.  With that part of our mission done, we hit the hay at 1am.

Day 4, October 30
On Monday we leave Malawi and fly to Johannesburg, South Africa to continue feeding the rest of our material.  Coming from Malawi, it’s a remarkable contrast.  With all of its own problems, South Africa is still the richest country on the continent.  It’s hard not to notice when you first arrive at the Jo’burg airport.  The Malawian dirt roads and mud huts are a world away.  That evening we send our remaining video via satellite to New York.  Exhausted, we grab a bite and a few drinks.  Our Malawian adventure is over, and we make plans to head back home. 

It may sound like a cliche, but the image that still sticks with me most is of those children.  Once you see those faces, you can’t blame Madonna or anyone else for wanting to take care of them.  When viewers see our program on Wednesday, perhaps some of these children will find new homes of hope—not in a pop star’s house necessarily, but with anyone who can love and protect them.  At least, I hope so.

For more Madonna's interview with NBC’s Meredith Vieira, tune into Today Wednesday and Thursday, 7 a.m. and Dateline Wednesday, 10 p.m. Madonna talks more about life as a mother, the process of adoption in Malawi, her career and the difference she still hopes to make.