Madonna visits Malawi to check on charity, leaves in a huff over lack of VIP treatment

Madonna did spend her time in Malawi visiting the projects that her charity, Raising Malawi, with her children in tow. Being an international superstar and philanthropic activities, Madonna and her entourage entered the country like VIPs.
Madonna dancing during her recent trip to Malawi.
Madonna dancing during her recent trip to Malawi.
Madonna’s Instagram

You probably heard this one before. It starts with Madonna going to Malawi…

In the past the story ends with her visiting on of her projects in the country or adopting a kid. Her trip this month featured a twist ending.

Madonna did spend her time in Malawi visiting the projects that her charity, Raising Malawi, with her children in tow. Being an international superstar and philanthropic activities, Madonna and her entourage entered the country like VIPs.

That means, according to the Telegraph, that they get to skip the immigration lines, have access to a special lounge and are provided limo service to and from their private plane.

Fast forward to the end of the trip. The rock star and her entourage get majorly dissed! 

Here’s how it unfolded: Madonna is wrapping things up and decides to pen a quick letter to her pal Joyce who also lives in Malawi and was unable to hang out.

Dear Joyce,

First and foremost let me Congratulate [sic] you on your position in Malawi! What an honor and what a huge responsability! [sic] I have always admired your strength and courage and have very fond memories of when we met and spoke and we interviewed you for documentary [sic]as you know I am in Malawi for the week. If you have any time in your busy schedule to meet that would be great if not know I am here to be of service and continue to do what I can to support the children of Malawi! If there is a project you can think of that we can join efforts on let me know! I wish you the very Best [sic]!!!

Madonna (not actually signed)

Best of Luck [sic] to you!

Warm regards and great respect

The casual correspondence is written to none other than President of Malawi Joyce Banda. Madonna and her representatives previously reached out to the president to arrange for a meeting to no avail.

With the visit over and still no response from President Banda, Madonna and company disembarked for the airport to quickly move through security, grab some snacks from the exclusive lounge, limo over to the plane and jet on out.

That was the plan till Madonna’s VIP status was revoked.

“There was a directive that Miss Louise Ciccone, travelling on an American passport, and her children should use the ordinary passenger terminal on their way to their jet,” said a Department of Aviation source at the airport. “Her manager Trevor Neilson and her security detail tried to negotiate but we told them we can’t open the VIP lounge without authorisation.”

According to the Telegraph, Madonna and her posse had to travel through the security checkpoints like an average bunch of Joe Schmoes. Needless to say, team Madonna was not happy.

“Madonna and Mr Neilson were very annoyed by this but her children, especially David, seemed to enjoy mingling with the ordinary people. David would stray to talk to other children and his mother used to call him back,” he added.

It is not know as to whether the president received the informal letter from Madonna, but it is clear that she was not happy by the celebrity’s visit.

She told a journalist, “She just came unannounced and proceeded to villages and made poor people dance for her. And immigration officials opened the VIP lounge for her just because previously she enjoyed the VIP status.”

Update: Banda took things a step further issuing an official statement in response to Madonna’s visit. It includes a list of eleven points aimed at setting the record straight. One of the points includes a listing of other celebrities who visited the country in the past with out the VIP treatment.

If the argument is that because she is an internationally renowned star, and, therefore, Madonna believes she deserved to be treated differently from other visiting foreigners, it is worth making her aware that Malawi has hosted many international stars, including Chuck Norris, Bono, David James, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville who have never demanded state attention or decorum despite their equally dazzling stature.

Though the news story ends there, Madonna’s work in Malawi deserves further scrutiny says Kim Yi Dionne in her blog today.

Madonna is over-claiming credit for the work she is doing with buildOn to build schools in Malawi, detailed in this article by Malawian journalist Mabvuto Banda and this article by Malawian journalist Ralph Tenthani (and then there’s this one from the BBC). Madonna is touting her recent partnership with buildOn for constructing 10 schools in Malawi, when in fact, they’ve built 10 school blocks, some of them at existing schools. Maybe the Material Girl doesn’t know the difference between schools and school blocks (a school block is a cluster of classrooms, and a school is a cluster of school blocks), and maybe I’m just splitting hairs — but I would like a bit of truth in advertising. If I gave someone a laptop in a village, can I say that I created a technology center in that village?

Madonna’s work in Malawi garnered attention in 2011 when it was uncovered that the funds for the Raising Malawi Academy for Girls were mismanaged. $3.5 million was spent, $18 million was raised that there was no school building to speak of, let alone teachers and students.

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This is where it gets interesting. The director of the academy was none other than Joyce Banda’s sister Anjimile Mtila-Oponyo. The New York Times reported on the story saying that Mitila-Oponyo received an “extravagant compensation” for her work. Kim showed at the time that the claim by the NYT were baseless as her salary was on par for EDs at similar organizations in country and far less than what she was making while working for the World Bank and UN.

Back to present day, Trevor Nielson, a representative of Raising Malawi, told Malawian journalist Phillip Pemba that Mtila-Oponya had a personal grudge with Madonna and was using her position in the Education Ministry to exact revenge.

“Madonna has no problem with the President of this country. But Anjimile Oponyo, who is the sister to the President, is demanding money and matters are in court. Her contract was terminated as head of Madonna’s girls’ school project in Malawi.

“She is now using her position [as Principal Secretary]in the Education Ministry to create trouble for Madonna. She is using her office to avenge on her personal grudge with Madonna and pursue her personal financial interest. We are surprised that she is doing that,” said Neilson.

And so continues the saga of Madonna and Malawi.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • Andrew

    Hey, I’ve spent time in non-VIP waiting area of that airport. Yet another thing that Madonna and I have in common. (The others being bad teeth and Midwestern roots.)

  • Having spent some time in Africa, reading this makes me cringe. And it really makes me cringe to imagine what a “non-VIP” African might think upon reading this.

    $3.5 million spent, $18 million raised … and no schools built? Sounds a bit like a fourth cup of tea.

  • Bobbi

    Madonna is simply ridiculous and needs a spellchecker next time she writes the president of Malawi.

  • Jen

    All the publicity surrounding this story begs the question of why we as a society are so quick to criticize the philanthropic efforts of celebrities but very rarely turn the same critical lens on NGOs/charities involved in the same efforts. http://parachuteopen.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/much-ado-about-madonna/