Wednesday, October 18, 2006

From Material Girl to Spiritual Mum: Madonna, Malawi, and Baby David

For Mr. Yohane Banda, who had never heard of the pop diva Madonna until she visited Malawi last week to adopt his 13 month-old son David, the closest he could relate with the material girl was the word Dona, meaning rich white woman, in Malawian parlance. In a matter of days, he now knows her, and the rich guy Guy Ritchie, as the new parents of his son. My initial reaction to the news was amazement at how a child whose father was alive and available could be termed an orphan, and be considered for adoption. I have since learned from youtube videos and other news articles that Mr. Banda’s first two children died in infancy, and he gave up David for fear that he too would die, after his mother died a week after his birth. The debate that has erupted over the adoption has elicited 67 webpages of comments on the BBC website Have Your Say, and is still raging on across Malawi listservs, newspapers and radio stations. As debate can sometimes be a powerful tool for social change, the views expressed by most people on the topic, in Malawi and around the world, reveal the extent of pessimism on the one hand, and optimism on the other, about Malawi’s and Africa’s future. An unspoken corollary of that pessimism and optimism is the idealization of the global North, of its material wealth and supposed happiness, and of celebrity bliss.

In Malawi and on Malawian listservs, the debate has been about two issues. First, the manner in which Malawian law has been circumvented by a High Court order, exempting Madonna from an 18-month legal residency requirement, and from a ban on international adoptions. Madonna is reported to have met with the Malawian president, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, but no official statement was released on what they talked about. The second point has been about whether the child would not be better off growing up in the place of his birth, while receiving whatever help Madonna and other well wishers might provide. On the BBC’s Have your Say website, a frequent refrain has been whether this is not yet another publicity stunt by yet another attention-seeking celebrity. Using the argument about the illegality of the adoption, an umbrella group representing up to 60 human rights NGOs, the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), attempted to stop the adoption by going to court, where they apparently did not succeed.

Arguments in favor of the adoption have ranged from accusations of jealousy with the bright future David will be assured of, to archaic laws that are said to contradict the spirit of the new constitution. On whether the child would not be better off staying in Malawi and being supported by Madonna without having to leave Malawi, several people have questioned the wisdom of letting a child grow up in an orphanage when adoption is available, while others have suggested that psychotherapy and counseling should be not only available in the West but also capable of helping David cope with the psychological problems that may arise out of the adoption, and out of having parents of a different race from his.

The myriad views expressed over the issue reveal various assumptions about the conflict between culture and change, the plight of a country such as Malawi and its uncertain future, and the taken-for-granted idea of the West as the best place for a guaranteed future. There can be no denying that having famous Madonna and rich guy Guy Ritchie for parents is going to give David a growing up experience totally different from one he would have in Malawi. He will be afforded the best schools in the world, the most expensive clothes and toys, and the world’s attention. What is not easy to predict, however, is whether wealth, fame and status are going to be enough to guarantee him happiness, satisfaction, and a meaningful life. Many of those who have supported the adoption have not even thought of this as an issue; to them, there is no question that wealth, fame and a ticket to the global North are the best guarantee for happiness and life satisfaction, and a place like Malawi is the last place anyone would want to grow up in, given a choice. Given that Malawi now has about 1 million orphans, the high infant mortality rate, inadequate health care services, a struggling school system, recurrent famines, etc, it is not difficult to see why many believe David will have a much better future growing up as Madonna’s child, in the global North.

It is worth celebrating that today Malawi’s orphan population has been somewhat reduced, and that one of her children has the once-in-a-lifetime chance of becoming a globally recognized face. But the plight of the other 999,999 orphans still needs long-term solutions. Madonna’s NGO in Malawi, Raising Malawi, is going to take in 4,000 orphans. Given the publicity the adoption has raised, it has already been reported that the government ministry responsible for women and children is being inundated with telephone calls from around the world from people who also want to help with the orphan problem. Thus many are only thankful that Malawi has been in the news around the globe, thanks to Madonna.

Out of the millions of views that have come out pouring on the topic, the question of whether life in the global North is qualitatively better than in poor parts of the world has not come up as prominently as one would hope. Schools in the global North can be excellent, but they can also spawn deadly violence, as seen in the several school shootings that occur frighteningly frequently in the United States and other “developed” countries. Black people in majority white societies live under the constant fear and threat of racism and psychological, sometimes physical, violence. The American comedian Chris Rock has argued that he might be a very rich black person, but no white person, however poor, would willingly change places with him.

A lot of educated Africans grow up to despise and dismiss their African identity, accepting the received wisdom of the inferiority of the black person (except themselves personally) and the supposed superiority of the white race. Perpetuated through school knowledge, these beliefs pervade our minds to the extent that we come to see Africa as a place set apart from the rest of the world in terms of development, civilization, technology, and wealth. We come to think of Africa as stagnant, unchanging, and forever backward. It is a tragic truth that many Africans have lost hope in the struggle to solve Africa’s problems, and now adopt white supremacist views on their own identity and destiny.

Although their actions have been interpreted as jealousy and anachronism, the Malawian lawyers and activists who have drawn our attention to the way in which Malawian law has been compromised for the sake of a celebrity adoption have shown that not every African has been sold on the white supremacist bandwagon. Granted that there are NGOs who thrive on foreign money which they misuse and enrich themselves with, there are Malawians who are genuinely concerned about Malawi’s problems, and are working both inside Malawi itself and outside, to help ease the problems. The very Malawians who are making accusations of jealousy and archaic laws would be the first ones to blame the Malawian legal system the moment child traffickers learned of the power and influence of money and fame, and began targeting Malawian children. Hopefully this debate has alerted us to such a possibility, and we are embarking on a process to make sure it does not happen.

All said and done, the future of the world does rest on our ability to deal with the race problem, and Madonna’s act could be seen as one example in that direction. As she told Merle Ginsberg of the pop culture and fashion magazine, W, in the April 2003 issue, she sees it as her “responsibility […] to bring light to the world and make the world a better place.” For us Malawians, we will need to think deeply about the breakdown of our social and communal institutions, which in the not-too-distant past used to be strong enough to handle problems of orphanage. Thanks to the fluctuations and unpredictabilities of globalized economies and inequities, our safety nets are gone, and our desperation is tearing us apart. Yet, we have been able to deal with change before, and although it is undoubtedly going to be very difficult, I do not see why we cannot, in the long run, and with the support of our friends, deal with the coming problem.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Desmond Tutu, Bill Clinton and uMunthu

I first drafted this entry more out of an urge to vent, than to reflect. I had difficulty writing about an airport ordeal and connecting it to the African Renaissance and Black Consciousness, until I learned of the recent remarks made by Nobel peace laureate and retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former US president Bill Clinton. Archbishop Tutu has decried the moral depravation in South Africa, a breakdown of uMunthu, whereas Clinton has adopted uMunthu (uBuntu in South Africa) and offered it as an important tool in dealing with the world’s problems. Clinton was speaking at the Labour Party convention in the United Kingdom in September. What I present below is an attempt to grapple with the dilemma of uMunthu and self-criticism in Africa, in the context of an airport ordeal I was subjected to at Johannesburg International Airport recently. It wasn’t until I heard Archbishop Tutu’s remarks that I began making sense of my ordeal and what the former Archbishop fears is happening in South Africa.

Archbishop Tutu has been one of the chief advocates of uMunthu as a philosophical framework informed by theological and social urgency in South Africa’s political transition. Lately he has been critical of the moral direction South African society is taking. Delivering the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town recently, the Archsbihop is reported as saying: “The fact of the matter is we still depressingly do not respect one another. I have often said black consciousness did not finish the work it set out to do.” What he said on this occasion made me wonder if my ordeal at JNB was not a manifestation of the problem he was describing.

Because of the flight connection I missed from JFK to Johannesburg International Airport (JNB), it was my expectation that my luggage, two big bags containing my clothes, books, gifts, etc, would not arrive on the same flight with me at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) in Lilongwe, Malawi. So it was not a surprise that I landed on Malawian soil without my two bags. The lodge I was staying in kindly offered to collect the luggage from the airport and bring it to my room. The person from the lodge who went to collect the luggage called me from the airport and said he was not sure if he should go ahead and pick up the bags from the carousel, given the condition the bags appeared to be in. One of the bags came off the belt half opened, with things rummaged and appearing as if some had fallen out. He asked if I had locked them both, and I told him no. I had been instructed not to lock them back in Lansing, as airport security in the United States opens and unlocks all checked in baggage. If I was going to report anything missing, he suggested I come to the airport myself and sort things out.

When I got to the Lost and Found section at KIA, I found both bags zipped close. I opened them and could not immediately tell if anything was missing. It took me a few seconds to begin recounting in my mind the things I had packed. It took me days to sort out exactly what was missing. Most of them were gifts, ie, clothing, lotions, perfumes, etc. Almost half the contents of one bag were missing.

I decided I would submit the pilferage form at the responsible airline’s baggage office in Johannesburg, on my way back to the US, rather than in Lilongwe or Blantyre, as I did not have enough time to spare in Malawi.

So on Saturday afternoon, September 16, I landed back at Johannesburg International Airport, and proceeded to check in for my connection to New York’s JFK, via Dakar, Senegal. I tried using my sense of direction to identify the section dealing with lost baggage, before realizing that I was only succeeding in getting myself lost within the airport. An airport official advised that I needed to check with immigration if they could allow me to the said section, as that was in-country. I got to what I took to be the immigration area, and was told that I had gone beyond the immigration point and needed to go back. I retraced my steps, and presented myself before the nearest station. An immigration officer stretched out her hand for my passport and boarding pass, and I handed them over. “You are not a diplomat! This is for diplomats only,” she shouted, before punching a number of keys on her computer keyboard. “It says up there clearly—For Diplomats,” she continued. “I didn’t see it, I’m sorry,” I replied.

“Did you overstay?” I told her I had just landed, barely an hour ago, from Malawi, and I was in transit. “Then how come you went beyond this point? You have entered the country. You shouldn’t have passed this point!” She was now shouting even louder and gesticulating angrily. She called out to another woman and, as far as I could tell from her tone and gestures, she lashed out at her for not watching the entry point. The other woman came over and asked me the same questions the first woman asked. “You entered the country illegally. We charge 3,000 Rands for that.” As far as I knew, I had barely moved from one side of the international departures lounge to another, and here I was, being accused of being an illegal immigrant in South Africa! I told them I didn’t understand what the fuss was all about, I was just trying to get to Lost and Found and report missing items. They weren’t impressed. They went ahead and stamped my passport, before one of them ratted out fast instructions on how to get through immigration and find Lost and Found.

All through the harangue and rudeness I did my best to stay calm and not answer back in anger, something I have recently come to realize I have great trouble doing at times. I decided I would try filing the report in New York, if I was able to get that far.

I was raging inside as I walked away from the immigration, resisting a strong urge to go back and make myself clear, so to speak. For reasons I doubt I have the clarity of mind to articulate, I became aware that I was repeatedly asking myself a series of questions: What happened to the African Renaissance? What happened to uMunthu? What happened to Black Consciousness? To African and Third World solidarity? What does any of this have to do with any of the above questions? I wasn’t going to find answers to these questions, until four weeks later, through the serendipitous occasion of the 75th birthday anniversary of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In reconstructing my worldview around concepts such as the African Renaissance, uMunthu, Black Consciousness and Third World solidarity, I have found myself rethinking some of the easy urges we have acquired from the Western school system. In particular, I am talking about the tendency by us elites and educated Africans to be overly critical of other Africans, African institutions, African governments, African cultures, sports, education, and even politics. I am not talking about genuine criticism that has indeed been central to the understanding of some of the causes of our problems, and to the transitions we have embarked on. Rather, I am talking about criticism spawned mainly by the underlying tendency to see ourselves as Africans and everything African through the perspectives of Northern global dominance and ideologies, long hand for white supremacy. In this regard, an easy reaction to the experience I was subjected to, from the missing luggage to the incomprehensible charge of being an illegal immigrant in a lounge at Johannesburg International Airport would have been to say that’s how Africans conduct their business—inefficiency, incompetence, and even rudeness. In fact that’s what I saw and heard several white passengers saying when their luggage didn’t arrive with them in Johannesburg from New York. No one needs to be reminded how common it is to associate Africa with incompetence, and Europe and America with efficiency.

But because of my sensitivity to such insensitivity about Africa, I refuse to subject Africa to such comparisons, realizing that incompetence and inefficiency happen even in those places considered highly developed and “civilized”. Thus on the surface, the problems of luggage missing, rude immigration officers, planed being late, etc, should not be seen as peculiar to Africa only. As a matter of fact, I missed my connection on my way to Malawi because an American plane was delayed at an American airport. I experienced another delay on my return flight from New York to Cincinnati. The air hostess apologized by saying “It’s JFK; what else can I say?” Upon which one passenger responded: “You need say no more. It’s JFK.” And another one: “That’s all you need to say.”

On the face of it, it appears futile, if not irrelevant, to spend time highlighting cases of incompetence and inefficiency in the global North. Many people would say these happen few and far between in the North, whereas in Africa they are the norm. In my view, that type of thinking is indicative of the very mentality I am decrying here, the tendency to associate excellence with the North and backwardness with Africa and the global South. For me, making the African Renaissance work involves challenging these stereotypes and encouraging people, Africans and friends of Africa, to be sensitive to unfair and unjust portrayals of Africa. uMunthu accepts criticism of Africa and her problems, but not when launched from white supremacist ideologies, as if often the case, by both Africans and friends of Africa.

Given what I was subjected to at Johannesburg in September, I agree with Archbishop Tutu’s appeals to Black Consciousness and uMunthu. However it is also incumbent upon the media to be more analytical and present the social context in which Africa is viewed in the global sphere. I often worry when important Africans give aid and comfort to anti-African agents by offering them language with which to actualize their prejudiced views of Africa. But in advancing our uMunthu worldview, one difficult question is the extent to which we should restrain ourselves from self-criticism for fear that it will be taken advantage of by racists, Afro-pessimists, and other agents of anti-Africanism.

Adding on to Clinton’s exhortation for the world to embrace uMunthu, Dr. Kennedy Lweya has opined that uMunthu as a “concept has a powerful meaning and potential to transform the world into one of better understanding and respect for every human being - it is about treating others as we would [want] to be treated.” It is in this spirit that we see the number of scholars who are researching, writing and publishing on uMunthu growing, in Malawi, South Africa, and other African countries. Lesser known than their South African counterparts, Malawians who have advanced this scholarship include Harvey Sindima, Augustine Musopole, Gerald Chigona, Richard Tambulasi, Happy Kayuni, and a few others. Anybody wishing to avail themselves with how uMunthu looks like, and why its scholars believe it has the potential to contribute to a different understanding of the world's problems, would do well to consult these and other scholars.