Madonna choses Malawi

Kim Yi Dionne is an assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University. She writes for AIAC about recent coverage of Malawi, actually Madonna in Malawi (that’s the problem). Kim also blogs about Malawi, politics, and HIV/AIDS at the blog, haba na haba. You can also find her on Twitter–Sean Jacobs.

Kim Yi Dionne
Guest Blogger

Malawi has been in the headlines of mainstream media outlets in the past couple of weeks. Was it because of a growing concern about the deteriorating human rights and governance situation? No. You guessed it: a story set in Malawi was on The New York Times landing page a few weeks ago because of Madonna.

For anyone who doesn’t know the Madonna-Malawi connection, Madonna adopted a son, David Banda, from Mchinji in central Malawi in 2006 and a daughter, Mercy James, from Zomba in the south of the country in 2009. In 2006, she started filming a documentary that was shot in Malawi, I Am Because We Are. (The film was released in 2008). Also in 2006, she founded Raising Malawi, an organization whose stated mission is “to bring an end to the extreme poverty and hardship endured by Malawi’s 2,000,000 orphans and vulnerable children once and for all.” (1)

The recent hubbub about Madonna has been about the mismanagement of funds of Raising Malawi’s primary project, the Raising Malawi Academy for Girls (2). Having raised $18 million and spent $3.5 million, there was still no school built, no teachers hired, and no girls selected to attend the small, private academy. The New York Times was the first to break the story (unless, of course, you read Malawian newspapers, which reported on the oddities surrounding the pop star’s school two months earlier), but other media outlets continue to report on the unfolding saga (e.g., Newsweek, The GuardianThe Mirror, USA Today, New York Daily News).

I could go on for pages about bad celebrity aid, the celebrity scramble for Africa, and the concomitant media reporting on celebrities “saving Africans,” but those arguments have been well articulated elsewhere.

Suffice it to say, much as I loved the Material Girl when I was a kid, I’m not a big fan of the work Madonna does in Malawi.

I think she’s actually bad for the country, especially as she commands such a presence in the international media. Friends of mine who know I do research in Malawi contend that she’s harmless: even if she’s wasted millions of dollars, that money didn’t come from Malawians. True enough. But the corruption surrounding Raising Malawi has left a pockmark on Malawi, one that has been aired in the international media, only because of Madonna’s fame.

One aspect of the The New York Times story bothered me in particular: the reporting on the “extravagant compensation” of the academy’s director in Malawi. That characterization hardly seems fair. Principals/headmasters of elite schools around the world are often well-paid with benefits befitting the position. In the case of Anjimile Mtila-Oponyo, the compensation was standard for executive directors of major NGOs in Malawi (and for her, it was a paycut from her previous positions at the World Bank and United Nations). Here is an excerpt of an email from Mtila-Oponyo shortly after the NYT article was published:

They warned us that they would go to the press and indicate that I was getting an international salary in Malawi. A company car, driver, golf club membership are standard for CEOs in Malawi but they seem like extravagants in the USA… Kindly note there was no mismanagement. Money was managed in LA and not in Malawi. No money for the school came to Malawi.

The New York Times‘ characterization of Mtila-Oponyo’s compensation is unfortunate for two reasons:

  1. It implicates Malawians were engaged in the corruption of Raising Malawi’s misspent millions, when the focus should really be on where the money was spent irresponsibly, and where the bulk of that money was spent–which was the US operations, not those in Malawi.
  2. The article suggests that things can be done in Malawi on the cheap. Just because a country has extreme poverty, that doesn’t mean that conducting business there should therefore be inexpensive. Malawi is an expensive place to do business precisely because of the lack of development (i.e., little infrastructure).

So, thank you, New York Times for bringing attention in the West that Madonna shouldn’t be doing work in Malawi. Maybe she’ll get discouraged and stop bringing shame to the Warm Heart of Africa. But then again, if you didn’t report on Madonna in Malawi, we might only rarely see the country mentioned in The New York Times (exception: the occasional but solid reporting by Celia Dugger). I’m not sure which is worse: Americans not knowing anything about Malawi, or Americans knowing only that it’s the place where Madonna adopted two children and wasted millions of dollars on a school that was never built.


(1) The 2008 Census estimated there were 837,300 orphans in Malawi.
(2) Though the Academy has been scrapped, you can still purchase a ceremonial brick on Raising Malawi’s web site to help raise money for the school.

* BTW, the title of this blog post references Madonna’s response when people ask why she chose Malawi, to which she replies, “Malawi chose me.” Um, I’d like to see some evidence of that.



Sean Jacobs

Also goes by Hasan Wazan. Life President.

  1. I wouldnt be so quick to judge or place the blame on madonna, yet.
    please look at the bigger picture and know that madonnas plans may have changed(building a school) but her mission remains the same. before we point fingers at her, point it at yourself and see how much you have done to help anyone other than yourself?

  2. It seems the author of the above article has got some valuable information regarding the charity work and organisation Madona is involved in. We know corruption is a huge problem in all spheres of life in Africa as well as in the West. I am not sure whether he meant Madona has been involved in the mismanagement of a project she initiated to give hope to disadvantaged children and young people in Malawi. I am not sure but I do not see how Madona would represent the colonial masters and missionaries who introduced religion and education and took away our gold and diamonds. Hence they taught us to sing " learning is better than silver and gold". How about the chiefs and elders in the days of the slave trade who sold their subjects for a bottle of rum or tobacco etc? I will love to read about Madona's crime in Malawi.

  3. Madonna needs to apologise to the Malawi nation and all those she has wronged. She has suggested she did not build the school because government did not support her and give her title to the land which was a lie. Then she turned around and tried to suggest through the NYT that it was the black woman who mismanaged the money when she knew the Kabbalah center mismanaged 18million dollars and only sent US850,000 to Malawi. 3million was spent at the Kabbalah center. It was racist to suggest that the black woman was corrupt. Madonna should be ashamed to have tried to pin this shameful debacle on an innocent woman. Madonna should not be allowed back in Malawi, she has ashamed the whole USA. This is the reason people hate Americans. Treating people as disposable items. Money raised for Malawi should be sent to Malawi. Why should Michael Berg and Kabbalah keep the money? They blamed Malawians, let them send the money back to Malawi.

  4. Did Madonna know that by blaming an innocent woman instead of pointing fingers at the Kabbalah center and Michael Berg that she was destroying that womans hard earned career. Madonna adopted children from Malawi how could she hurt Malawians like that. Malawians welcomed Madonna to Malawi and they believed her. How could Madonna be so selfish not to care that she is destroying someones life with careless words that she knew were lies. Madonna is a disgusting person. If she has this much comtempt of Malawians how does she treat those adopted Malawian children.

  5. Strong insight, Kim, and thanks for sharing it.

    I especially like that you raise the way in which high-earning Malawians working for non-profits are judged harshly compared to their Western colleagues, who would expect the same wage or higher.

    It's an ugly and complicated thing. Why do people in the West expect Malawians to be volunteers whose civic spirit must in every case over-ride the ambition of earning a good salary?

    I think it's partly because sacrifice is such a big part of the way we think through narratives of philanthropy and humanitarianism – we want to find saints and heroes every time – and so to find people benefiting in the usual corporate ways is to shatter the fiction that this is all happening in some kind of exceptional non-commercial place (Africa?).

    But then why judge only the Malawians who have the temerity to seek compensation for their work? I think it's an illuminating discrepancy that you've hit on here.

    1. thanks, Elliot. It seemed really unfair to me that here was an incredibly qualified person, taking a salary cut, and not living extravagantly (very contrary to my understanding of Madonna's visits to Malawi, where curtains of even the best hotels have to be changed in advance to suit her mood). And yet, the fact that she gets a company car (mind you, a 1996 model) paints her as somehow taking something that doesn't belong to her. Anyone who would have seen the land that was razed for the school would know how terribly far the academy was expected to be from the rest of town. If the person in charge of the academy was never expected to leave the school grounds, it might make sense that she not have a car — but transport from town to the area where the academy was to be built is irregular, certainly not consistent enough for an elite school's principal.

  6. I am an America who worked in Malawi as a peace corp, I can tell you that where the school is in a place called Kanengo there is no public transportation.
    2. I researched salaries of other heads os schools, the Head of school for Oprahs school was getting US150.000, almost double what Oponyo was making at Raising Malawi. The golf club in Malawi is a drinking joint, not a club like in the USA where there is a rastaurant and nice grounds. This is a dive. This whole thing was said to paint the Kabbalah center innocent even though they were holding on to 18million and are still raising money on the website for a school they never intended to build. How did this woman mismanage money that she never received, this was just to perpertuate the thinking that Africans are corrupt. She is a Western Educated woman who was working for the World Bank when Madonna hired her. This I agree with commentators above is blatant racism and Madonna should really be ashamed to have done this to this woman. She destroyed this womans career for nothing. Now we all know that they only sent US$850,000 and kept 18million in Los Angeles. This is bad and shameful. It is really great to see Westerners defending the Malawian woman and not condoning the arrogance of Madonna and the Kabbalah center to think they could pass blame to an innocent woman and get away with it. Whoever you are Kim we all salute you for telling the truth. You used your keyboard to vindicate an innocent woman.

  7. Madonna latched onto gay men behind the scenes because she didn’t have to put out for them on shoots. She figured out to use them to make money, so she ripped off lists of original works of art and artists , figuring out what artist is hot and not, by gallery jumping, clubbing and schmoozing… while to this day it continues. Interviews with songwriters show singles such as “Like A Virgin” were written by a paid male songwriter experiencing life after a break-up-these are facts. She blathers in footage on her creative pursuits, only for the discerning eye to learn this pursuit is the locating, plagiarizing or replicating of works made not by she but alas by persons of no relations. Madonna is as manufactured as Britney Spears, with an art like appeal and subversive sales pitch.
    “Swept Away” is a remake of a film from the 70′s; “Vogue” is a knock off of a song written by Malcolm McLaren years prior titled “Deep In Vogue”; there are complete facts upon research.
    A prime example of her care for the world, is that failed girls school in Malawi, eyewitness accounts prove her friends she “hooked up” there basically stole from poor women and men in Malawi-to support their expected lifestyle. Had Madonna “cared” she, being the hard worker she claims to be would have flown to that country to correct the mistakes, its been years and she let it fail-with a list of celebrity trolls whose careers should have ended years ago. This is after collecting millions of bucks promoting charity, using it,blacks and liberals/gays, in a psychological whirlwind of excitement, flashing lights, pumped up music and fashionable timings.

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