updated 05/04/2009 AT 1:00 PM ET
•originally published 05/04/2009 AT 5:30 AM ET
As the hearing on Madonna’s adoption appeal gets under way in Malawi, the family of the girl at the center of the controversy – 4-year-old Mercy Chifundo James – rejected efforts by the child’s apparent biological father to claim her.
“He said he wanted to make peace with us. He said he wanted to be allowed to take care of his child, but we laughed him off. Where was he all this time?” said one of Mercy’s uncles, Peter Baneti.
The father, James Kambewa, visited the girl’s clan Saturday in the mud-and-thatch village outpost of Zaone, in the eastern district of Zomba. He was accompanied by his aunt, a man and another woman, the uncle said.
Baneti had signed the adoption papers that would have allowed Madonna to call Mercy her daughter, but the southern African country’s High Court rejected the pop singer’s efforts. On Monday, the case was adjourned for ruling after arguments were heard from the singer’s lawyers and from two rights groups, one supporting the singer’s bid to adopt, the other against.
‘Has No Case’
On Saturday, Kambewa brought his concerns to the family’s village, but, according to Baneti, a local chief said, “James has no case since if he wanted to have anything to do with the child he should have been there even after his girlfriend died.”
In an interview airing Monday on CBS’s The Early Show, Kambewa said he is “capable of taking care of my baby” and that Mercy needs “to grow as a Malawian … with our culture.”
Mercy, whose teenage mother died after her birth, is living at Kondanani Children’s Village in the town of Bvumbwe. Madonna first met her in October 2006, the same time she found son David Banda at a different orphanage.
Kambewa, who has said he’s ready to undergo a paternity test, is scheduled to meet a lawyer from the Malawi Law Society on Monday, said Mercy Mulele, the law group’s secretary general. Eye of the Child, a child-rights non-governmental organization, also wants to weigh in.
But Baneti holds strong in his belief that Kambewa has no place in Mercy’s life. He told PEOPLE: “This boy is a joker and we told his delegation never to waste our time again.”