Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Madonna in Malawi: Material Girl Lacks Substance (pt 1)

Madonna in concert Image via Wikipedia
When the news that Madonna was going to get involved in Malawi came out, many Malawians were excited.  All of a sudden Malawi was on prime time news networks all over the world. Prior to her involvement, many Americans had no idea which one of the Hawaiian Islands it was, “Maui?? … Oh it’s in Africa? … Did you mean Mali?” Although there were people in the country that may have not heard her name, the ignorant clichés stating that Malawians had never heard of her prior to this are largely untrue and serve as ethnocentric commentary on the level  of ‘remoteness’ of a country that has never heard of the “Material Girl”. In fact, many Malawians were dancing to her hit song, “Holiday” in the 1980’s and her other songs thereafter. Therefore when she actually decided to take a holiday, Malawians thought, "it would be so nice". So it was no surprise that when Madonna’s inner Angelina Jolie came out, so did her Malawian fan base (this now included many new fans). Suddenly the whole country became one big musical. No, not Elvira; Madonna became Malawi's Nancy and David Banda became her Oliver! So Malawians did what came 'naturally', they went into song and dance with their laws in order to accommodate her. Naturally, she came back for an encore, "Chonde Sir, May I have some more?" and then came little Chifundo (err...Mercy for the sake of the countless English speaking editors who couldn't quite wrap their tongues around her real name, and took the opportunity to anglicize it when possible). Madonna's adoption all in all was met with  relatively little resistance. Malawians supported this – after all, she was just trying to help orphans and the logic of the public was straightforward - if the orphans needed parenting and someone was willing to take care of them, there was no harm.

Many Malawians ignored the voices of reason from civic society that cautioned the logic of circumventing Malawian laws on  technicalities in order to allow one celebrity adoption to happen. Malawian law at that time was that the adopting parent must have been a resident of Malawi for eighteen months. The judge ruled that she had established residency by owning property there and did not have to live there permanently.  Foreign adoptions had been illegal in Malawi because they have lead to child exploitation in the past.  Under the guise of foreign adoption, children become victims of human trafficking and are sold as sex slaves, are made to appear in pornographic videos, or have been sold as laborers on farms. Therefore the objections to the adoption were legitimate concerns. Does one subject a child to a childhood full of rationed portions of food in a poor African nation or does one subject a child to a limitless supply of sex in Europe's red light districts? The Oliver Twist type living conditions are an unfortunate reality for many African children (mainly girls) that get trafficked from these areas. Even in the absence of an international trafficking ring, I can recall the story of the Ethiopian girl, Hana, that was adopted by the Williams parents that punished her to death due to their Christian beliefs modeled after teachings of Pearl (Read Hana Williams story). She was left to sleep in the barn, not given food for several days, and was hit daily with a plumbing tool. Therefore, whilst not all adoption is bad, not all of it is good either.

Proud to be a Malawian
Proud to be a Malawian (Photo credit: cajean2)
The other fear was that Malawi would be branded as a haven for orphans period. There was a fear that it may become fashionable to adopt a Malawian baby. Malawi would be branded as the next "place to adopt orphans" after Russia, China, and Ethiopia. As Oprah would say in a situation like this, "you get a baby! you get a baby! every-body gets a baby!" It is no coincidence that a few years later, in the show Grey's Anatomy, when Dr. Meredith Grey was looking to adopt, the writers chose Malawi as the birthplace of the baby (Incidentally, Grey's Anatomy is another popular show that comes on in Malawi, so please hold the narratives about the Grey's Anatomy writers writing a show about adopting a baby from a country that has never seen the show because people are too poor to own T.V's). I am not sure if the writers did their homework on that too. It is unclear if their intention was to highlight the plight of Malawian orphans or if they were trying to encourage adoptions from Malawi (for parents willing to splurge on $20K to home there for the purposes of establishing residency), or if that was just the first country name that came in to their mind, thanks to Madonna. They named the baby Zarah, an atypical name for a Malawian (..and please, its possible but not probable for a Malawian to be named Zarah, the writers corruption of Sahara perhaps?). Interesting to note as well is how little Chifundo is now being called Mercy by the Press (Mercy is the English translation of Chifundo, so this would be like calling a girl named Isabella "Beauty" due to a familiarity with the English version of her name). However, beyond the Malawian baby name games, it seems like the message is quite clear, "Want a Cute Baby. Go to Malawi".

Madonna and Child.
Image via Wikipedia
The warning signs that all was not right with the whole spectacle were there from the start. Madonna fit right into the stereotypical situation of the unseasoned celebrities visiting Africa. She took photos with orphans. Check.  She raised funds for the her Charity "Rasing Malawi". Check. She wore a colonial hat. Check. She wore Khaki and Army pants (was she going to re-colonize us or join an imaginary freedom fighter group?). Check. She wore a Chitenje .Check Plus. She bought souvenirs. Check. She looked up Malawian adoption laws. Uncheck. Madonna publicly stated in interviews that, “Malawi didn’t have adoption laws”.  No adoption laws? Had she landed on Pluto I wondered? She played right to the stereotype of the “lawless “African country.  Needless to say, Malawi did have adoption laws but there were loop holes which her Malawian lawyer was able to exploit. The laws of course, were more easily exploitable because of her status as an influential celebrity from the global North. So when mother Madge wanted to literally “raise” Malawian children, she was met with a lot of resistance but more importantly, overwhelming support. Her Malawian fan base stirred so that Malawian orphan's stomachs could stir too. It was a hot topic on Malawian listserves, blogs … and the Facebook page, “Malawians in support of Madonna” went up instantly, consisting of Malawians in Malawi and Malawians around the world. Many Malawians even donated money to Raising Malawi. There were a lot of voices trying to weigh in from all ends but the loudest voice weighing in came from the Malawian government’s gavel. Therefore, Madonna ended up adopting a Malawian child, and then another - Raising Malawi. Check.

Then Madonna’s inner Oprah came out.

(Next: Part 2 )