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.