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 Guardian, The 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:
First, 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.
And second, 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.
Footnotes: (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 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.