By Karen S. Schneider
Updated October 30, 2006 12:00 PM

Madonna had only seen a snapshot of David Banda and had learned only basic information about him when she and her husband, Guy Ritchie flew to the African nation of Malawi on Oct. 3. But when the singer arrived at the Home of Hope Orphanage Centre and met the 13-month-old boy, says Madonna‘s spokeswoman Liz Rosenberg, “It was love at first sight.” Adds a witness: “The look of pure joy on her face was beyond words, not unlike when her children [Lourdes, 10, and Rocco, 6] were born.”

About a week later—even as a storm of controversy was brewing over the planned adoption—Madonna‘s happiness was echoed in a dimly lit room of the High Court in the Malawian capital of Lilongwe. The pop superstar, 48, and her director husband, 38, met, for the first time, with David’s dad, a farmer named Yohane Banda. Through a translator who spoke Banda’s Chichewa language, “she asked lots of questions,” says Banda, 32. “How old I am, what I do for a living, everything.”

Madonna also made promises—to provide Banda’s only child with a loving home, and to bring him back to Malawi to visit. For the singer, the face-to-face with Banda marked a turning point in an almost year-long effort to adopt a child from an impoverished nation where she helps fund six orphanages. (She has also pledged to sponsor improvements through the Millennium Promise program.) For Banda—who ekes out a living farming onions and cabbage, and placed David in the church-run Home of Hope when his wife died—it was a chance to give his son, he tells PEOPLE, “a brighter future.” Adds David’s grandmother Asineti Mwale, 56: “God has heard our prayer. May he bless this kindhearted woman abundantly.”

As it turns out, not everyone shares their joy. The ink had not even dried on the Oct. 12 “interim order” granting Madonna and Ritchie temporary custody of David before critics began crying foul. In Malawi a group of human rights advocates protested that procedures established to prevent child exploitation had been circumvented. And in Britain tabloids went as far as to accuse Madonna of stealing a baby. When she and Ritchie returned to London Oct. 13 without David—his passport was being processed—paparazzi surrounded her home, just as they swarmed David’s nanny as she carried the boy through the Johannesburg airport en route to London three days later. Even some of Banda’s relatives fueled the fire. “My cousin is illiterate,” says Pofera Jefremu Banda, 21. “He was made to sign papers he didn’t understand.”

Reunited with David on Oct. 17, Madonna responded to the controversy. In a statement to PEOPLE, she said she was shocked by the reaction: “I expect to be given a hard time about many of the things I do. I know they are provocative and I prepare myself, but I did not expect the media, the government or any human rights organizations to take a stand against me trying to save a child’s life.”

At the center of the maelstrom is a state provision that bars adoption by any applicant who is not a resident of Malawi. Critics interpret the provision to mean that international adoptions are illegal. But Necton Mhura, dean of the University of Malawi’s law school, points out that for now Madonna only has temporary custody. Child welfare workers will, as required by the Malawian court, check on the family at their home in England over the next 18 months to assess the situation before granting a final adoption order. And should the Ritchies be allowed to adopt, they would not be the first; the U.S. State Department knows of seven from Malawi in the past five years. Says Mhura: “I wouldn’t say the law has been bent for her.” In a statement Madonna insisted that “we have gone about the adoption procedure according to the law like anyone else…. This was not a decision or commitment that my family or I take lightly.”

The boy’s father, too, believes the matter is clear-cut—and made his point to human rights workers who visited him on Oct. 16: “They were saying it was not right for me to allow David to be adopted by Madonna,” says Banda. “They tried to convince me that I wasn’t understanding anything.” He assured them he did. “As David’s father, I have no problem, so what is their concern?” he asks. “What I want is a good life, a good education for my child.”

Truth be told, all he hoped for a year ago, when he first placed David in the orphanage, was survival. David was a month old; Banda had just buried his wife, Marita, who died from complications from childbirth at 28. What’s more, he had already lost two young sons to malaria. “I was alone with no money,” he says. “I couldn’t buy milk. His granny couldn’t breast-feed him. I didn’t want him to die like the others.”

It was at about the same time that Madonna began to think of adopting a needy child. “She has made it no secret that she’s wanted to have more kids,” says Rosenberg. “That was not meant to be by the regular path.” The singer contacted the Rev. Thomson John Chipeta, director of the Home of Hope orphanage, and soon after, Chipeta gave Banda the news that a rich American woman—Banda had never heard of Madonna—wanted to adopt David.

The singer is now focused on providing David with the good life she promised his father. “I must admit that [knowing David is so far away] makes me sad sometimes, but I am not worried,” says Banda. “We have established family ties, mine and hers. Perhaps one day,” he adds with a smile, “I will be able to go where my son is.” Maybe one day he and David’s adoptive mother will learn to speak without a translator. While in Malawi, Madonna was heard saying one Chichewan word, over and over, to people she came in contact with: “Zikomo.” It means thank you.