By Mabvuto Banda
On April 6, 2009, US pop star Madonna braved the scorching sun and laid a foundation stone for the $15 million girls’ school in the dirt of a sprawling piece of land in Chinkhota Village – about 15 km outside Lilongwe – the capital of Malawi.
Forced out of their ancestry farm land to pave way for Madonna to build the school, the angry villagers accepted the new development and allowed the pop diva to plant the ceremonial first brick on the site.
This was good news for girls in the southern African nation where only 27 percent of them attend secondary school.
“I grew up as a poor girl with my mother… I had no chance for good education,” the emotional Madonna said as she put down the brick with an inscription: “Dare to Dream.”
Her remarks resonated so well with many Malawian girls who believed in her and saw the school academy as a chance to live their dreams.
Even the chief for the area was happy: “This is our farm land but we have decided to let go because we know that we are investing in the future of our children, especially the girls,” said Village headman Chinkhota on that day.
Rachel Phiri, a 15-year-old, was ecstatic: “At last my dream has been answered because with this school I will be able to get the best and become a medical doctor.”
Madonna went on to host high-profile events to raise money for the school. She hosted a star-studded $2,500 a plate fundraiser in 2008 co-hosted by Gucci, in a 42,000-square-foot transparent tent at the United Nations grounds.
The fundraising venture was a success. Madonna’s charity, by her own admission collected $18 million — more than enough to construct the girls’ school. She, however, abandoned the project and the Malawi office for her charity was shut down.
According to internal correspondence, which I have verified, from the money raised, Madonna’s handlers claim $3.8 million was spent on the planned school.
But several high ranking members of the Raising Malawi board I have interacted with in recent months still maintain that no such money was spent on the project
Madonna went on to sack her Malawian board, which comprised some of country’s finest and accused them of mismanagement.
Angry with the way she treated them, eight Raising Malawi staff in Malawi sued her and demanded their pay. To avoid embarrassment, Madonna’s lawyers opted for an out of court settlement.
Her final decision was more devastating: She stopped funding a network of orphanages running feeding programmes across the country, a move that affected an estimated 25,000 orphaned children, most of them HIV positive.
Workers at the centre who asked for anonymity say that many children died as a result — a claim I could not independently verify.
To understand Madonna’s decisions in Malawi, one has to look at how she shrewdly adopted the two children, David and Mercy, in a country where adoption laws still require a foreigner to be resident for 18 months to qualify
Another key issue to understand is Madonna’s connection to the Kabbalah Centre International, a mysterious and controversial Jewish mystical organisation that follows a set of esoteric teachings called Kabbalah.
Her relationship with Philip Berg, the founder of the centre, gives insight into the dealings of the centre and how that may have influenced Madonna’s decisions in Malawi.