The entertainer—who was raised in Bay City, Mich., by her widower father, Silvio Ciccone, after her mom, also named Madonna, died when she was just 5—first got the itch to give back about 12 years ago while in the midst of a career renaissance with her hit album Confessions on a Dance Floor. At the time she felt something was missing. Living in L.A. with Lourdes and Rocco, “I remember thinking, ‘I have so much, and I don’t feel like I’m doing enough,’ ” she recalls. Soon after, she was put in touch with Victoria Keelan, a Malawian woman who explained the country’s dire situation: “The universe was listening. I knew that’s where I was supposed to go.”
While visiting a hospital in 2006, “I felt like I was in a concentration camp. There were not enough beds for bodies, everyone was emaciated, and people were dying—of AIDS, of malaria, of malnutrition,” says Madonna, who launched Raising Malawi after that first trip. “I had children, and I was looking at all these kids who were going to become orphans or already were.” She met David as a baby battling pneumonia and malaria at an orphanage in the capital city of Lilongwe and soon began the adoption process, but when she brought him home in May 2008, “every newspaper said I kidnapped him,” says Madonna. “In my mind I was thinking, ‘Wait a minute. I’m trying to save somebody’s life. Why are you all s—-ing on me right now?’ I did everything by the book. That was a real low point for me. I would cry myself to sleep.” Still, her joy at having David conquered even her darkest days—another gift from Malawi.
“When you go places where people have nothing, you see how people are still managing to smile and be happy with the simplest thing, and you feel like a greedy, selfish pig for ever complaining about anything,” she says. “You think, ‘Am I here to help you, or are you helping me?’ ”
Even more difficult was adopting Mercy, who was bedridden with malaria when Madonna met her at an orphanage in Blantyre. By then divorced from Ritchie, she was told by Malawian officials “I was not capable of raising a child,” recalls the singer, who split from the filmmaker in 2008. She successfully challenged the refusal in Malawi’s supreme court and brought Mercy home in June 2009.