Not so Fast

Earlier this week I heard rumblings of a spat between the Malawian President and Madonna. At first, it just seemed that Madonna was displeased at being made to queue with the general public at the airport in the capital, Lilongwe, instead of being whisked to a VIP lounge. I must admit I felt a little stab of schadenfreude and thought nothing more of it. Every time Madonna visits Malawi it’s a media circus and I do find it irritating that the only time my country makes the news is when Madonna is there. Plus, I am deeply ambivalent about the way she was allowed to sidestep the country’s child protection laws in order to adopt her two children, Mercy and David.

But that was under the last President. I’m not sure what happened between Madonna and President Joyce Banda to occasion such a war of words, but soon my Twitter timeline was awash with excited tweets celebrating my President giving Madonna a dressing down, accusing her of exxagerating her charity work and being a bully. Some asked if this was the end of paternalistic celebrity charity work in Africa, others high fived Banda’s assertiveness. As the Guardian put it:

It’s funny, but it’s also a classic takedown of the astonishing entitlement of white savior types and their puffed-up pretensions.

Not so fast.

The 11-point statement reads a like a long, furious stream of consciousness rant. The President may well have some points about Madonna’s attitude and the media circus she stirs up around her charity work, which is up for debate: the last time I was home, I saw the site of one of her schools and it was a razed plot of land. Banda accuses Madonna of exaggerating her school building programme, which may well be right, given reports of mismanagement at her charity, Raising Malawi. I am uneasy about the way Madonna has gone about her charity work and there are reports of her sidestepping the government to do her own thing when she perceives bureaucracy as getting in the way of her plans. And that’s just the thing, her plans. There is a sense that Raising Malawi is her project and legacy and that there is no local consultation, no partnering with grassroots organisations – just a top-down paternalistic development model that is all too prevalent in Africa.


I have to admit feeling more than a little alarmed at the tone of the statement, which smacks of personal offence rather than a purely principled objection to Madonna’s behaviour. The President also defends her sister, who worked for Raising Malawi and apparently left under a cloud. That may just be a coincidence but even more reason to be circumspect about using the Office of the President to launch a vituperative attack.

State House has noted these claims and misgivings. State House has followed the debate incidental to these claims with keen interest, and would wish to respond as follows to put the record straight:

Why is the State House training its beady eye on Madonna’s every move and utterance with the laser focus of a gossip magazine? With inflation soaring, a food crisis and the economy struggling, a shortage of drugs in hospital…I’d argue that the State House has more important things to worry about.  Yes, it’s possible to do both, but the way to deal with Madonna is using our secret weapon: bureaucracy. If the Malawi government doesn’t like her charity’s work, don’t give them planning permission. You’re the government! You could even deny her a visa if it came to it. I don’t recommend it, but my point is, there are so many other weapons in the arsenal to deploy against Madonna – a hysterical statement, even if it (eventually) makes a good point or two, is not it.

The fury is personal. And that’s worrying coming soon after a man was arrested for “insulting the President”.

The statement is tone deaf. A little like throwing a celebration one year into your Presidency, which came about after the death of the previous incumbent and in a time of immense hardship for the people whose wages have not risen with inflation  – in a country that’s already very poor. (Tip: the IMF came calling and praised the currency devaluation. Suffice to say that if they’re happy, someone somewhere is suffering)

More than anything, I’m worried at the character that the statement betrays. It’s impulsive, emotional, thin-skinned, sarcastic and, yes, a little arrogant. And that’s not to side with Madonna.

I want my President to succeed; for my country and for African women. Her role is imbued with symbolism. She has done a number of great things, including restoring donor relations, selling the Presidential Jet and taking a 30% pay cut. She is leading from the front. But, don’t use a hammer to crack a nut. Be a stateswoman, Madame President.

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