Madonna, Money and Malawi


By Mabvuto Banda

Madonna’s decision to entrust the California based Kabbalah International Centre with funds to build the $15 million girls’ academy in Malawi, may have been the reason why the school project failed in the poor southern African nation.

When Madonna founded Raising Malawi, she got on board Michael Berg, as chief executive, and the two began their highly publicised mission to build a $15 million all-girls academy in Malawi.

The Kabbalah Centre, controlled by the Berg family for more than 40 years, has been accused of  funding the lavish lifestyles of the family as investigations by some leading US media houses reveal.

They estimate that the organisation may have assets of about $260 million.

In April 2011, a Newsweek investigation exposed the lavish lifestyles of the Berg family and linked the Kabbalah International Centre to posy like schemes that stole from people and businesses.

The lavish lifestyle of the Berg family is public knowledge in the United States: Four of the five Berg families live in Beverly Hills mansions owned by the Kabbalah centre.

Madonna plants a tree at the ground designated for the school construction

According to investigations into the centre’s wealth, building permits alone on three of the Berg homes totalled $1.4 million.

Philip Berg’s house, the third the centre has provided for them has a $30,000 swimming pool, enough money to feed children at an orphanage  in Malawi for a good six months.

According to the Newsweek article the centre routinely pays the expenses accumulated on Karen’s (Philip Berg’s wife) credit cards, which include a personal AmEx card with a $31,000 limit and, in the past few years, three Bank of America cards with a combined $81,000 limit.

The Berg families’ food, furniture, clothing, gas, nannies, tutors, gardeners, housekeepers, personal assistants, and more exotic indulgences such as luxury cars, first-class flights, and spas, is all subsidised by the centre.

Nelson Boord, the centre’s chief finance officer until 2009 said that its six non-profit and three for-profit entities collectively earn annual revenues of $60 million, own a $200 million real-estate portfolio, and manage a $60 million investment fund.

Kabbalah Centre tax attorney Shane Hamilton justified the lifestyle saying that the Bergs include ordained rabbis who are “treated as ministers of the Gospel” and are thus entitled to “a parsonage as part of their compensation.

However, when the centre filed an application in 1989 seeking tax exemption as a church, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) got interested.

The IRS started probing the Kabbalah centre for allegedly using non-profit funds to fund the lavish lifestyles of the Berg family.

Raising Malawi was caught up in the probe due to Madonna’s connection with Spirituality for Kids, an educational nonprofit she championed and was founded by Karen Berg, the Kabbalah Centre’s head.

Madonna had donated more than half a million dollars to Spiritually for Kids  and even served as its chairwoman of the board.

The Newsweek investigation into the Kabbalah cult and the Berg family raises questions about Madonna’s decisions as regards her fundraising ventures for Malawian children.

This may be the reason why Madonna sacked Berg and moved the Raising Malawi offices out of Kabbalah’s headquarters.

Madonna went on to hire the Global Philanthropy Group to manage its operations. But it was too little too late because Malawian girls became the biggest losers.

“I have been waiting for this school because my mother told me that I was going to be one of the first girls to be enrolled,” said Ruth Phiri, a 17-year-old child in Chinkhota Village where the school was planned to be built.

Ruth is among several girls in the village that feel let done by Madonna and have lost hope in education. She is just waiting to get married not surprising in a country where the laws allow a 15-year-old girls  to get married

“I no longer go to school because my parents can’t afford to pay school fees…am just waiting to be married,” said Agness Chilombo, another girl in the village.

The several civil suits against the Kabbalah Centre in the USA clearly show how the Centre had exploited the trust of wealthy followers in order to pillage their bank accounts.

Heiress Courtenay Geddes filed two lawsuits against the centre. One claimed that the Bergs and others connected to the centre defrauded her of about $1.3 million. The other alleges that she contributed $500,000 for a homeschooling program that never was created.

According to court records Geddes’s attorney argued that the centre and its related organisations “exist primarily to enrich” the Berg family

That’s about the Kabbalah international Centre and its questionable dealings. The other is Spirituality for Kids, Madonna’s pet project before Raising Malawi.

Spirituality for Kids has an offshore account in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven that seems an odd place for an entity that runs children’s programs in L.A. to be banking.