Malawi waits for Madonna to ‘finish what she started’

2011-08-23 14:32

Blantyre – It might just be another abandoned building project, if it was not the site of pop star Madonna’s ill-fated flagship philanthropy programme in Malawi, the native country of her two adopted children.

The singer’s charity, Raising Malawi, planned to build a $15-million (R107.6-million) girls’ academy in the outskirts of the capital, Lilongwe.

In less than a year, numerous complications forced the entire construction project to grind to a halt. Now, it is little more than a sandy field were local youngsters can kick around a deflated football.

Much of the $3.8 million spent so far have allegedly been squandered by managers of the project, including former executive director Phillippe van de Bossche, who is accused of using funds to buy cars and golf club memberships.

Moreover, Washington is tying up the charity with a tax probe and Lilongwe is investigating how the land was purchased.

And last week, in a further blow, a Malawi court ruled that former workers could sue the charity for unfair dismissal, even as the singer’s lawyers says the employees were let go since Raising Malawi could not afford to keep them on.

It is a far decline for the ambitious singer, who just in April last year laid the corner stone for the academy, with the words “dare to dream” engraved on it.

The failure has sparked anger among some residents who often held a mix of optimism and scepticism about the foreign benefactor, but hoped their corner of the world was finally being noticed.

“Right from the beginning, people warned us that she was just interested in adopting the children,” says Ireen Macheso, a mother of three living in Blantyre, Malawi’s economic hub.

“Once that was accomplished she abandoned the school project,” charges Macheso, adding that Madonna is a “baby snatcher”.

Others still hold out faith the hiccups are nothing serious and the project will get back on track.

“Hopes are still high... let Madonna show commitment this time around by engaging serious people to work on the project,” said Blantyre resident Peter Chiwanda.

Help with young girls’ education would be welcome, said Chiwanda, especially as the majority of the population is subsistence farmers.

Elsewhere across the country, the singer has poured millions of dollars into feeding centres and health clinics, leaving a silver lining to the cloud hanging over her activities in Malawi.

Raising Malawi has raised altogether some $18 million, much of it from Madonna’s own pocket. The foundation said earlier this year, after the academy appeared doomed, that it was changing its tactic for the education project to more individualised, tailor-fitted support of youngsters.

The singer’s website is still taking donations for projects in one of the world’s poorest nations, where many live on less than a dollar a day.

A landlocked country in southern Africa, stuck under a stifling one-party rule during the Cold War and which now struggles with a devastating HIV/Aids epidemic, Malawi was often forgotten, offering tobacco exports, general stability and little international flare.

But in 2006, Madonna put the country in the limelight when she flew to the home of 15 million people to adopt little David Banda and followed shortly thereafter with the adoption of Mercy James.

Many Malawians had not heard of the singer until she began her charity work and the adoption process. Even five years into her involvement in Malawi often residents still draw a blank when the name Madonna is mentioned in anything other than a religious context.

Stella Mussa, a mother of two said she only saw Madonna once, on television, when she adopted the first child. Since then she has heard nothing about the US pop icon or her school project, but is open to the proposed generosity.

“The idea of a school for girls is good. I hope she will come back to Malawi to finish what she started,” Mussa said. 

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