Madonna’s Son David Returns to the Orphanage Crib She Found Him In — and More Family Photos from Her Trip to Malawi

The pop icon reveals her private world to PEOPLE, sharing exclusive photos from her family’s July trip to Africa, when her charity Raising Malawi opened the country’s first children’s hospital

Forever Family

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For this week’s issue, Madonna invited PEOPLE to join her and her family in Malawi, where she and her charity (Raising Malawi) opened the Mercy James Centre for Pediatric Surgery and Intenseive Care, the country’s first children’s hospital.

Madonna has a long history with the southeast African nation. She adopted four of her six kids from Malawi: David Banda, 11, in 2008; Mercy James, 11, in 2009; and 5-year-old twins Estere and Stella in February.

Megastar Mom

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“I want my kids to be loving, decent, compassionate human beings,” says Madonna, with Mercy, Stella, Estere and David. “I try to set a good example. But it’s been a rollercoaster ride.”

Making History in Malawi

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On July 11, Madonna (with daughter Estere) and Raising Malawi opened the Mercy James Centre for Pediatric Surgery and Intensive Care, the first-ever children’s hospital in Malawi.

“It’s extremely rewarding,” the star says of the hospital, which she poured millions of dollars into opening over the course of two years. “We’re saving lives — it’s a great feeling.”

The hospital opening was a family affair. Son Rocco Ritchie, 17, painted a mural in the ward, David danced with a troupe from the local Jacaranda School for Orphans, and Mercy — the building’s namesake — delivered a moving speech. (Her eldest daugher Lourdes Leon, 20, had a dance workshop at college, “but she was there in spirit!” says Madonna.)

A Young Artist

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Madonna commissioned renowned artists from around the world to create artwork for the Mercy James Centre. “When I told Rocco about it — he goes to art school, and he wants to be a painter — he was like, ‘I wanna do one,'” says the singer.

“Getting a 16-year-old to organize ahead of time a very large mural was an undertaking,” she adds. “There was a lot of pressure, but he did it, and I was super proud of him.”

Mercy’s Time to Shine

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“I have six children, and five of them are extreme extroverts, and one of them is very shy — and that’s Mercy,” Madonna say sof her daughter (with the First Lady of Malawi and brother David).

“When she finally did her speech, she was so bowled over, I was crying over her — because she was so confident and speaking from her heart,” adds the proud mom. “And that’s really hard for her to do.”

Giving Back

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Madonna and her family returned to Home of Hope, the orphanage in Lilongwe from which she adopted David, Estere and Stella.

“Every time I go to Home of Hope, I’m like, ‘My gosh, 10 more children — that would be good, that would be okay; I’ve got room!'” says Madonna of visiting the orphans. “They’re so full of love—and they don’t have parents. They just want to hold your hand. They want your attention. They just want to spend some time with you. Think about us and our worlds of privilege and all the space that we have. It doesn’t take that much to share.”

Full Circle Moment

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“That’s the crib I met him in,” Madonna says of David, who was a baby battling pneumonia and malaria when she found him at Home of Hope in 2006.

Stella

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“It’s inexplicable. It’s like saying, ‘Why do you fall in love with the people you fall in love with?'” Madonna says of what drew her to her children. “You look into the eyes of somebody, you feel their soul, you feel touched by them—that’s it.”

The singer met Stella and her twin sister Estere at Home of Hope 2 ½ years ago, and they grew close after subsequent visits.

After a trip to Malawi last summer, Madonna began the adoption process once again upon an ephiphany: “I thought, ‘Why isn’t my kitchen filled with dancing children?'”

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Madonna brought Estere and Stella home in February, and “it didn’t take long for them to get acclimated,” she says. “They’re amazing. It’s like they were always here.”

Estere and Stella’s trip to Malawi for the Mercy James Centre opening marked their first return to their home country since the adoption.

“I think they were a little bit worried, and they didn’t want to leave my side — like maybe, ‘is Mom gonna leave us here?’ I think that was going through their head. So they weren’t as sociable as I thought they would be. That will come in time,” says Madonna.

“They’ve learned in time that I’m their mother, and nothing is going to change that,” she adds.

Indeed, Madonna says she experienced the same thing with her older children. But “now they feel a sense of responsibility and connection,” she says of their relationship with Malawi.

The Future Is Female

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“There’s no wimpy girls in this house,” Madonna says of her children.

At home — Madonna and her family split time between New York City, London and now Lisbon — the kids’ days are filled with singalongs: “First it was Moana, now their favorite movie is Sing — the’re obsessed with it,” she says. “We sing ‘I’m Still Standing’ all day long.”

Madonna’s Modern Family

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“This is the truck we drive around in” at the Kumbali Lodge in Lilongwe, where the family stays on their trips, Madonna says. “Now David’s driving it. He doesn’t have a driver’s license … not on the main roads, don’t worry!”

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Home Away from Home

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“That picture sums up everything — like, I’m home,” Madonna says of her family portrait in Malawi. “It feels like a second home. There is no electric buzz, the Wi-Fi sucks, and the sunsets are phenomenal.”

Adds the singer: “I love when my children are in Malawi. Their selfless behavior, compared to the normal complaining in the privileged world, is great to witness.

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