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Madonna, Malawi, and manners

9 April 2013

Madonna recently visited Malawi, and managed to forget to take her manners with her. First Jezebel and then Gawker published a story about Madge’s informal letter to Malawi’s President, Joyce Banda. Perhaps thinking President Banda was just another girlfriend she might go dancing with, Madonna addressed the president by her first name.

Dancing with the Agogo"s at the Orphan Care Center in. Namitete!

A post shared by Madonna (@madonna) on


“Dancing with the Agogo”s at the Orphan Care Center in. Namitete!” from Madonna’s Instagram feed

Both outlets (among others) did a fine enough job shaking their finger at the pop star that I could almost leave well enough alone. But much of the Western reporting missed the controversies surrounding the more substantive issues of Madonna’s trip to Malawi.

First, Madonna is over-claiming credit for the work she is doing with buildOn to build schools in Malawi, detailed in this article by Malawian journalist Mabvuto Banda and this article by Malawian journalist Ralph Tenthani (and then there’s this one from the BBC). Madonna is touting her recent partnership with buildOn for constructing 10 schools in Malawi, when in fact, they’ve built 10 school blocks, some of them at existing schools. Maybe the Material Girl doesn’t know the difference between schools and school blocks (a school block is a cluster of classrooms, and a school is a cluster of school blocks), and maybe I’m just splitting hairs — but I would like a bit of truth in advertising. If I gave someone a laptop in a village, can I say that I created a technology center in that village?

Then, responding to the less-than-enthusiastic reactions she was receiving in Malawi (huge turnout from schoolchildren at her events notwithstanding), Madonna’s charity representative, Trevor Nielson, lashed out at President Banda’s sister, Anjimile Oponyo, the former executive director of the school Madonna promised to build but later reneged. Malawian journalist Phillip Pemba quoted Neilson as saying:

“Madonna has no problem with the President of this country. But Anjimile Oponyo, who is the sister to the President, is demanding money and matters are in court. Her contract was terminated as head of Madonna’s girls’ school project in Malawi.

“She is now using her position [as Principal Secretary] in the Education Ministry to create trouble for Madonna. She is using her office to avenge on her personal grudge with Madonna and pursue her personal financial interest. We are surprised that she is doing that,” said Neilson.

And then I read this at the close of the Gawker story:

Trevor Neilson, Madonna’s philanthropic advisor, accused Banda of being influenced by a “grudge” her sister Anjimile Oponyo holds against his client, who fired Oponyo from her position as head of Raising Malawi a couple years ago on suspicion of theft. (A report by Neilson’s Global Philanthropy Group consulting firm placed much of the blame for Raising Malawi’s failure to construct a girls’ school, after receiving $3.8 million in funds to get started, on Oponyo, who is alleged to have mismanaged funds for personal gain. At the time, Malawi officials blamed Madonna for failing to provide the $15 million she promised.)

In an earlier post about Madonna, Malawi, and Anjimile Oponyo, I discussed how the New York Times was unfairly characterizing Oponyo’s compensation as extravagant. But now we are leaping to Oponyo as being a thief. There was gross financial mismanagement of Raising Malawi funds in the United States; as Oponyo wrote in an email, “No money for the school came to Malawi.”

Finally, I’m never a fan of poverty porn or people as props. Did the patient in this picture consent to having this photo taken?


“With Dr. Borgstein, my Hero! Pediatric surgeon at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre. 500 surgeries a year! He saves lives. ThAt’s TALENT!” from Madonna’s Instagram feed

If Madonna just stopped going to Malawi, I would not feel compelled to write about how lame she is.

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