Madonna loses VIP status in Malawi

Madonna adopted two children from Malawi and promised to build a school. But she got the cold shoulder on a visit last week – as well as a blistering tirade from a government spokesman.

Thoko Chikondi/AP
US performer Madonna greets volunteers at the Mphandura orpahange near Lilongwe, Malawi Friday April 5, 2013.

Celebrity jaunts to Africa are usually carefully staged PR projects: posing with school children at a ribbon cutting here, shaking hands with refugees there.

But when Madonna visited Malawi last week, no one seemed to have gotten the script.

First, the American pop star fired off a rambling, handwritten note to the country’s president, Joyce Banda, congratulating her on her recent election (“what an honor and what a huge responsability! [sic]”) and requesting an audience during her six-day trip (“If you have any time in your busy schedule to meet that would be great”).

President Banda flatly ignored the request. But then, when Madonna turned up at the country’s main airport to fly home Saturday, she was told her VIP terminal access had mysteriously been revoked and she’d have to go through check in and security like any other passenger. And four days later, a blistering, 1,000-word invective from a government spokesman appeared against the pop star on a Malawian news site, entitled "State House responds to Madonna's outbursts." 

“In the feeling of Madonna, the Malawi Government and its leadership should have rolled out a red carpet and blast the 21-gun salute in her honour because she believes that as a musician, the whiff of whose repute flies across international boundaries, she automatically is candidate for VIP treatment,” the statement read. “Neither the President nor any official in her government denied Madonna any attention or courtesy during her recent visit to Malawi because as far as the administration is concerned there is no defined attention and courtesy that must be followed in respect of her.

The livid pronouncement is the latest installment in a long-running soap opera between Banda and Madonna that has pitted Africa’s second female president against one of the most visible enthusiasts for celebrity aid projects on the continent.

The bad blood between the two stretches back to 2009, when the singer broke ground on a glitzy $15-million all-girls boarding school in the village of Chinkhota – a gift, she said, to the country from which she’d adopted two of her children.  

But two years later, the site remained a sun-baked empty lot, and an audit showed $3.8 million had disappeared into the project. Madonna abruptly called off the building of the school and fired its leadership, including the head of the school, Anjimile Oponyo – who just happened to be Banda’s sister.

In a withering audit, Madonna’s Raising Malawi organization described Mrs. Oponyo’s failings. "Her charisma masks a lack of substantive knowledge of the practical application of educational development, and her weak management skills are a major contributor to the current financial and programmatic chaos,” they wrote.

From there the feud turned bitterly personal.

When Banda became president in January, she appointed her sister to a senior position in the education ministry, and Madonna charges that the two have a personal vendetta against her and her ongoing educational projects in the country, which include the renovation of several existing schools.

For its part, representatives of the government have accused Madonna of overstating her impact on the country and say they have been puzzled by Madonna’s “do first, ask later” approach to aid.

As John Bisika, Malawi's national secretary for education, science, and technology, told the Guardian in 2012, "For someone to go to the papers and say, 'I'm building schools', without telling the government, I find it a strange way of working.”

“I wouldn't just go to the UK and start building schools. We need to be approached and work out where the schools are needed,” he said.

For now, however, Madonna has promised to stay the course. “I’m saddened that Malawi’s President Joyce Banda has chosen to release lies about what we’ve accomplished, my intentions, how I personally conducted myself while visiting Malawi and other untruths,” she said Wednesday in a statement on the website of Raising Malawi, her charity. “I made a promise to the children of Malawi and I am keeping that promise.”

And the Malawian government? They had some final moralizing words for Madonna’s humanitarian impulses in the country, for which they argued she wanted Malawi “forever chained to the obligation of gratitude.”

“Kindness, as far as its ordinary meaning is concerned, is free and anonymous,” the statement read. “If it can’t be free and silent, it is not kindness; it is something else.” 

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