Madonna visit sheds light on Malawi’s poverty

This is Madonna’s third trip to Malawi since 2006, when she started a charity to help the country’s poor and orphaned children.

KUMBALI, Malawi (AP) âÄî “Madonna, Madonna!” the barefoot boys in tattered T-shirts call out. Until recently, the pop star’s name meant little in a country that didn’t even have TV until a decade ago. Even now, all these boys know is that a rich white woman ensconced in a nearby luxury lodge is the cause of the hubbub near their village. This is Madonna’s third trip to Malawi since 2006, when she started a charity to help the country’s poor and orphaned children âÄî one of whom she later adopted. On Friday, a judge is expected to give her the green light to adopt a second Malawian child, 4-year-old Chifundo “Mercy” James. Critics have accused the singer of using her fame and fortune to fast-track the adoption and say the little girl would be better off raised by her extended family. Madonna has maintained she is following standard procedure, and on Thursday she received the endorsement of a top government minister. Over the past week, Madonna and her entourage have traveled in three SUVS, drawing large crowds during visits to a day care facility funded by her charity and to an orphanage where her 3-year-old adopted son, David, once lived. International photographers and television crews have set up daily stakeouts along the road to Kumbali Lodge, where Madonna has been staying in an oasis of charming chalets situated on a cattle and horse ranch not far from the capital âÄî and just a stone’s throw from a scruffy village of the same name. Sometimes the paparazzi wait under shady acacia trees bursting with yellow blooms near the Presidential Palace before security guards move them on. Mostly, though, it’s long hours spent on a dusty dirt road, watching village life go by. Then, at the first sign of the star’s convoy, doors slam shut, engines rev and the chase begins. The group of young boys, who scrounge empty plastic bottles from reporters, have little concept of how famous and rich Madonna is. But they can see the fuss she has created and it’s a source of great entertainment. They break into belly laughs as photographers long used to the indulgences of the celebrity circuit, use their teeth to strip bark off sticks of sugar cane and suck the sweet fibers inside âÄî a popular pastime in this poor country. The boys don’t speak much English and the photographers âÄî who hail from France, Italy, Turkey and elsewhere âÄî don’t speak Chichewa, an official language in Malawi. But one language they all understand is soccer: Soon a rather deflated orange ball is produced and a game âÄî with very flexible rules âÄî is on. Madonna’s music is little known in this deeply Christian nation where a strict dress code banning trousers for women and long hair for men was enforced into the mid-1990s. There was no television until 1999 and even today, Western pop music is seldom heard on radio stations, which play mostly African tunes and reggae. The scene played out on the road to Kumbali Lodge illustrates this former British colony’s battle to break the cycle of poverty and corruption that afflicts so many African countries. To get there, one takes the Presidential Way that leads out of the capital, Lilongwe, toward the manicured lawns of the $100 million presidential mansion built by Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who ruled Malawi for three decades after independence in 1964. He spent 90 days in the palace before he was ousted in the country’s first multiparty election in 1994. His successor, Bakili Muluzi, who now faces corruption charges for allegedly siphoning $10 million from donor countries into his personal bank account, refused while in office to live in the mansion while his people lived in poverty. The incumbent President Bingu wa Mutharika, whose face graces numerous billboards in his bid to be re-elected in next month’s election, has no such objections. The road to Madonna’s lodge eventually disintegrates into a deeply rutted muddy track surrounded by corn fields that cuts through the rundown village of Kumbali âÄî a collection of crumbling mud huts, their roofs a patchwork of dried palm leaves. Here men cycle past on old bicycles loaded with scraps of building material or passengers they are ferrying the three miles to Lilongwe. One young girl of about 9 or 10 stood out during a visit there Wednesday âÄî tall and scrawny, she was dressed in a dirty white T-shirt and a scrap of faded yellow-patterned cloth wrapped around her waist. She was struggling with an enormous bundle of wood she likely spent all morning gathering. Eventually she managed to tie a rope made out of leaves around it. Then, with help from another girl, she hoisted the load onto her head and walked off into the long grass. She returned later with a bucket of water balanced on her head, then swept the road clear of sugar cane debris with a broom of leafy branches. She was last seen strapping another woman’s baby to her back and disappearing down the road. In endorsing Madonna’s adoption bid Thursday, Malawi’s child welfare minister, Anna Kachikho, noted that children like this one have benefited from the singer’s charities, which have helped 25,000 youngsters in a country of more than 1 million orphans, half of whom lost their parents to AIDS. If wealthy Westerners like Madonna adopt even one, Kachikho said, “it’s one mouth less” for Malawi to feed.