Malawi: Presidents, Pop Stars and the ‘White Savior’ Complex

It started out as a disagreement over definitions – can a classroom block be considered a school? – and soon escalated into a war of words between President Joyce Banda of Malawi and American pop star Madonna. According to a tweet from The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff, neither party emerged favorably from the short-lived but widely publicized feud.

Madonna with her Malawian adopted kids. Photo courtesy of Mabvuto Banda.

Madonna with her Malawian adopted kids. Photo courtesy of Mabvuto Banda. Used with permission.

Malawian journalist Suzgo Khunga (@suzgokhunga) dubbed it “the president and the pop star”, in a post to a closed online Malawian discussion forum for journalists. She tweeted:

@suzgokhunga: Now a whole president #JoyceBanda of #Malawi is fighting with a pop star #Madonna. Very embarrassing!

It is not the first time that Madonna has created a stir when visiting Malawi, the home country of her two adoptive children. At the time of the first adoption in 2006, the debate centered on why the government had circumvented its own laws to facilitate adoption by a foreign celebrity. This time the discord seems to be centered around a personal feud between the two women, with roots in a falling-out between Madonna and the president's sister Anjimile Oponyo, formerly the CEO of Madonna's charity, Raising Malawi, and now a Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Education.

The latest phase of the furore dates back to January 2013 when Madonna's charity issued a statement exclaiming that it had built ten new schools in the country. Malawi's Minister of Education, Eunice Kazembe, issued a press statement, published in Malawi's daily papers, denying the claim. “Raising Malawi only built ten classroom blocks, and not schools. People should know the difference between the two,” she was quoted as saying in the online newspaper The Maravi Post.

When Madonna visited Malawi in April and repeated the statement that her charity had built ten schools, the government, once again, shot back. Not only was Madonna's hand-scrawled note to President Banda requesting a meeting leaked, she never got the meeting, and as she left the country, was stripped of her VIP status, according to a blog post by Rebecca Chimjeka:

Madonna and her entourage were shocked with how they were treated. Each and every person on her entourage went through security checkpoints; their passports were stamped as normal passengers. Physical body checks were conducted and all their luggage went through security screening. There was no heavy security as she was going to board her jet that left KIA around 5.

In an exclusive interview with Chimjeka, Trevor Neilson, Madonna's manager, also confirmed that President Banda's sister, Anjimile Oponyo, was indeed “making life difficult for Madonna”.

A scathing press statement from one of President Banda's press officers, Tusekele Mwanyongo, accused Madonna of wanting “Malawi to be forever chained to the obligation of gratitude”. The statement was first posted on Malawian discussion forums, and soon appeared on the pages of online newspaper Nyasatimes.

The statement was unexpected given the president's dedication to restoring relationships between Malawi and the West, run to the ground during President Bingu wa Mutharika's reign. President Banda has prided herself on bringing back “azungu” (white people), whom she openly and repeatedly credits with having rescued the country from near-implosion. Given the accusatory tone of the press statement, it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, later revealed to have been unauthorized.

As expected, reactions in Malawi as well as outside world were divided. Malawian blogger and journalist Telephorus Chigwenembe posted on his blog:

To say the least, the statement resembled some communication from a private citizen to another. No sense of executive decorum.

Another blogger-journalist, Richard Chirombo, posted on his blog:

This is what the confused confusionists can do! It's the height of their madness. Power, may be, has, as it does more so often, inebriated them. They care about themselves. They don't care about the Malawi people. The children especially. That is why they have ganged up against Madonna.

In an entry from 14 April prominent columnist and BBC correspondent Raphael Tenthani offered advice to President Banda:

We should have never dragged the whole presidency in this issue. Whether we apologise or not we have come out of this with egg all over our face while Madonna is having the last laugh. We must learn to pick our fights carefully. Not every fight is worth fighting.

Comedian Daliso Chaponda, son of a former cabinet minister and close colleague of late President Bingu wa Mutharika, composed a poem:

Dear Joyce,
Was it your choice? To spurn me, to burn me, to turn me away From the VIP?
You defied me, denied me. I'm like a land ridden boat, Since you leaked my hand written note

On Facebook, Jack Banda drew parallels between President Banda and Madonna:

JB jets out with forex/taxes :Madonna jets in with forex.
Because of JB kids go to the streets: Because of Madonna kids have classrooms to learn from.
Because of JB hospitals don't have drugs and nurses and doctors strike: because of Madonna Queens has a paediatrician and a trainee paediatrician.

The story soon went global. Kenyan thinker and writer Binyavanga Wainaina composed a satirical yet poignant letter to Madonna, published on The Guardian's Comment is Free website. Wainaina called on Madonna to abandon the ungrateful Malawians and adopt Kenyan orphans instead. He went further:

But some of us Africans are deeply committed to the values Europe and the west brings to us: like democracy, human rights and lots and lots of cold hard cash for human rights workers and civil society and anything, really, that does things like Sustainability, Empowerment and most of all, Capacity Building – which, as you know is very, very important for Africa's future especially as it is tax free and comes with per diems and conference allowances. Imagine what your money would do in Kenya! We have cannier auditors than the Malawians.

Others focused on the wider implications of the feud. While acknowledging that President Banda's press office had “handled a messy situation with staggering ineptitude”, BBC's Africa correspondent Andrew Harding identified with the press statement's poignant argument and a shifting paradigm in development practice. He quoted an official speaking off the record:

That old image of a white person holding a starving black child is just embarrassing these days. The emphasis is on partnership, on building resilience in communities, and on business models.

International development consultant Amy Auguston saw an important lesson for donors in the Joyce Banda-Madonna saga:

I bristled with recognition when I read the government statement, and I imagine that many other development workers did too. In my career, I believe that I have done my best to be humble and respectful towards the host countries where I worked. Still, much like Madonna, the “honorable intentions” of those who work in development are not enough, and we must continually examine our motives and behavior. And, perhaps more importantly, we must listen to the sometimes harshly critical voices of the population that we are trying to serve.


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