Tag: Malawi

Madonna, Malawi and the problem with celebrity adoptions

Twitter was recently ablaze with criticism over Madonna posting a photo of her adopted black Malawian children, David Ritchie and Mercy James, rubbing her feet.

In the image which she posted on Instagram, Madonna is lying on the floor with the children kneeling on the ground in front of her, as they each rub a foot. The caption reads, “#motherlove… how I’m gonna get through the day. Mercy and David give the best foot rubs!! #rebelhearts.”


Regardless of the fact that Madonna has been raising these children as her own since 2009, some of Madonna’s fans and the general public found it offensive that she would post the pic of them massaging her feet. The photo sparked outrage on Twitter with where the argument was made that she is treating them as slaves.

On the other hand, there were also Black and Latino women who were not offended by the photo, responding that this is a “normal” act of love that occurs between a mother and her children, stating that they only saw an innocent expression of love by both Madonna and her children. Such a seemingly “innocent” act is by no means uncomplicated when it comes to Madonna.

Her preferred method of making the headlines lately, seems to focus on stirring racial tensions in order to get publicity. Last year, she caused similar controversy by posting an Instagram photo of her white son, Rocco Ritchie, in the boxing ring with a caption reading, “No one messes with Dirty Soap! Mama said knock you out! #disnigga.” In doing so, many of her critics wondered how then, was she addressing her black son, David? Her response was to brush them off as “haters”.

Given such a response, either the pop star is a racist or she is oblivious to historical and contemporary race relations or she is simply insensitive about them – all which are problematic for a parent raising black children in a world where racial hierarchies are still prevalent.

Another and perhaps more plausible reason was that she is doing it for publicity. Madonna – never one to shy from controversy – was very aware of the message, meaning and reaction she would get by posting both of these photos.

Why this photo angered so many

When a rich white woman from the Global North adopts poor black kids from the Global South, one needs to consider what the historical structures that lead to this situation are. This includes the inequality in global racial, social, political and economic relationships. When critics saw this photo it reminded them of these historical injustices that are still permeate our societies.

Although some who saw the photo commented that ‘racism’ is a part of the past, it is not and shouldn’t be treated as a relic in the backdrop of a world where black churches are target of hate crimes in the country of Madonna’s birth.

Colonialism is also not a relic of the past because neo-colonial relationships exist in this new global world order that keeps “Third world” countries poor and in need of interventions such as “aid” and “adoption” whilst protecting the interests of the Global North and its businesses.  To some, Madonna’s actions are a simple extension of the colonial processes. She is an epitome of the “Great White Savior complex” in which a white savior comes to “save” Africans from themselves, their land, but causes damage to Africans along the way.

Madonna in Malawi

Since the day she set foot in Malawi, her entire involvement there, including the adoption of the children and the building of the schools has been controversial at worst and deceptive at best. Madonna has caused her fair share of damage in Malawi in her attempts to “save” Malawi. This has been covered by the media, including Malawian journalist Mabvuto Banda, who meticulously chronicles Madonna’s involvement there.

The star circumvented the country’s adoption laws due to her position as a rich celebrity from the U.S, the Kabbalah center which was affiliated with her charity was being investigated for tax fraud by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS); she hired a PR company who scapegoated Malawian employees for being “corrupt” when her money for her academy went missing. Prior to this, she had colluded with the Malawi government to displace villagers for the school that never materialised; and she then said she would build smaller scale schools but built a handful of structures, most of which were classrooms which she called “schools”. Many of her actions involving Malawi speak to a rich celebrity who feels very much entitled in her transactions with Malawian people.

US pop diva Madonna sits among Malawian children during a visit to the Mkoko Primary School, one of the schools Madonna's Raising Malawi organisation has built jointly with US organization BuildOn. (Pic: AFP)
US pop diva Madonna sits among Malawian children during a visit to the Mkoko Primary School, one of the schools Madonna’s Raising Malawi organisation has built jointly with US organization BuildOn. (Pic: AFP)

Not that every single international adoptions involving rich white celebrities from the global north adopting poor African children is problematic. Madonna did not have a seamless Angelina Jolie-style adoption. It was a Madonna-style one – filled with controversy. In light of the aforementioned controversies in Malawi, when pictures of her using Malawian kids to rub her feet surfaced, it was likely to make some people uncomfortable. The photo was a commentary on much larger issues surrounding Madonna’s involvement in Malawi, and more specifically international adoptions there.

International adoptions

Rather than being quick to celebrate that someone has come and “saved” children who would otherwise have lived a life of squalour, we need to look at the larger implications of international adoptions for Malawi. There are “bigger issues” such as consideration for the welfare of adopted children.

Malawi has a real problem with international child trafficking where children are sold as sex slaves, sex workers or otherwise are exploited for their labour.  Therefore, in a country susceptible to such dealings, when a seemingly ‘innocent’ foot rub surfaces, it may very well remind some people of the thousands of adopted children from African nations who are exploited for their labour under the guise of ‘adoption’.

Of course, many have argued that Madonna can afford to hire workers in the service industry to provide services such as massages to her. However, exploitation and abuse of children is not an invention of the poor, nor limited to them – it can happen anywhere and in many forms. The abuses suffered by MacKenzie Phillips at the hand of her own celebrity father is one example of how money is not a determinant of parental abuse.

To argue that it is impossible for a rich celebrity to abuse the labour or services of a child is simply absurd – particularly a child that they adopted. The whole situation was strangely reminiscent of Cinderella – with Madonna in the role of the evil step mother who works her adopted step child to the bone. Although unlikely, one can only hope that David and Mercy are not secretly living a life of service to the material girl.

Madonna’s actions are not benign. She knew what controversy she would stir by posting it. She has never posted such photos showing her biological children doing this. Most likely, the sole purpose for posting the photo was for publicity.  The Instagram photo made reference to the hashtag “#rebelhearts” – the name of her new album. This speaks to an attempt by a celebrity to shamefully use race and privilege in order to get some attention.

Sitinga Kachipande is a blogger and PhD student in Sociology at Virginia Tech with an African Studies concentration. Her research interests include tourism, development, global political economy, women’s studies, identity and representation. Follow her on Twitter: @MsTingaK

Malawi jails first official in Cashgate scandal

Former Malawian president Joyce Banda. (Pic: Reuters)
Former Malawian president Joyce Banda. (Pic: Reuters)

A Malawi court on Tuesday ordered a senior government official jailed for three years, in the first sentence to be handed down in the so-called Cashgate scandal that led to the suspension of foreign aid to the country.

Treza Namathanga Senzani, the former principal secretary in the tourism ministry, pleaded guilty to stealing $150 000 from state coffers, and was condemned to three years behind bars for money laundering and theft.

“Despite being a first offender, she does not deserve a suspended sentence,” ruled judge Ivy Kamanga.

The judge also ordered that the funds she pilfered be forfeited to government. The cash was part of a broader swindle worth at least $30 million.

The scandal prompted foreign donors – who provide around 40 percent of Malawi’s budget – to pull the plug on aid of around $150 million (118 million euros).

The Cashgate scheme is the biggest financial scandal in Malawi’s history, and helped push former president Joyce Banda out of power during elections in May.

The judge said that as a principal secretary, Senzani “was a custodian of money and willingly stole government money”.

“It was an illegal act that had an impact on the economy.”

Senzani (50), who looked composed after the two-hour long sentence ruling, was arrested last year after a probe found she issued two government cheques to her own company even though it did not provide any goods or services to the state.

She is one of the dozens of civil servants charged with theft and money laundering.

Defence lawyer Nector Mhura plans to appeal the sentence.

Malawi’s democracy is more mature than it is given credit for

 A military officer salutes Peter Mutharika during his official inauguration as Malawi's new President on June 2 2014. (Pic: AFP)
A military officer salutes Peter Mutharika during his official inauguration as Malawi’s new president on June 2 2014. (Pic: AFP)

On June 14 1993, Malawians voted in a referendum to decide if they wanted to continue with one-party rule or adopt multiparty democracy. Sixty-four percent of Malawians voted against a one-party system. The referendum ended an over 30-year ban on all other political opposition in Malawi. Prior to this, the then ruling party Malawi Congress Party (MCP) was the only legitimate political grouping.

By opting for multiparty democracy, Malawians did not only reject the one-party system but departed from a certain ideology. Malawi now had a population that was no longer, if this was ever the case, united under one ideology. And when people are ideologically divided, tolerance provides key social threads that knit the societal fabric together.

This past weekend marked 21 years of multiparty democracy in the country. A number of social, economic and political factors indicate that Malawi has some way to go before it can become a truly tolerant society. Like all societies, Malawi has a historical context in which these issues must be understood.

Malawi attained democracy on the backdrop of 71 years of colonialism followed by 30 years of authoritarian rule. These regimes made Malawians inward looking: any concept, culture and way of living deemed unfamiliar to “Malawi culture” was to be rejected and avoided at all costs. This is what sustains oppressive regimes. It is a huge ask that Malawians become a tolerant society overnight. However, a sober look at the last two decades of Malawi’s democracy shows it is more mature than most critics would give it credit for.

Malawi has faced challenges that have tested its strength, maturity and resolve. One of the most notable of these challenges is former president Bakili Muluzi’s (in office between 1994 – 2004) attempt to increase presidential term limits so he could give himself a chance to seek a new mandate. Though a close vote in the end, Malawi’s Parliament stopped Muluzi’s bid and democracy ultimately prevailed.

Bingu wa Mutharika, Muluzi’s handpicked successor whose sudden death in office on April 5 2012 triggered a political transition, was another key moment that put our democracy to the test. Mutharika’s loyalists attempted to block Malawi’s then vice-president Joyce Banda’s succession of Mutharika as per constitutional stipulation. Again, the rule of law prevailed and President Banda was sworn in on April 7 2012 as the fourth president of the Republic of Malawi.

Joyce Banda lost this year’s elections to Bingu wa Mutharika’s brother, Peter. Banda finished a distant third, Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi Congress Party finished second. She is the first sitting president to lose an election since Malawi adopted multiparty democracy. Banda alleged electoral flawed and failed in her attempt to call for a re-run. It took eight tense days before the national electoral body finally announced the winner and Banda conceded victory to Peter Mutharika. This was yet another stern test for Malawi’s democracy, and the country passed it.

It is not unheard of that sitting presidents refuse to accept defeat and settle for power-sharing deals. It happened in Kenya in 2007-2008, in Zimbabwe in 2008 and in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010 when Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede electoral defeat, plunging the country into violence.

Recently, Mail & Guardian Africa published an article attributing Banda’s acceptance of the election results and the fact that she allowed fair contest to her gender. The logic of this argument is questionable and is not fully supported by facts. For a start, the history of presidential successions in Malawi shows that Banda’s acceptance of electoral defeat, albeit reluctantly, is in line with the trend of Malawi’s democracy. The change of power in the country has always been peaceful but not without minor resistance.

Malawi, like many African democracies, has a long way to go, especially in the areas of social, economic and human development. There is too much politicking in the country, which takes more precedence than service delivery. Fifty-two percent of Malawians live below the international poverty line. Service delivery remains very poor –  a 2010 World Bank report indicated that only 9% of 14.8 million Malawians had access to electricity by 2009.

Findings by Water for People, an NGO advocating for safe drinking water in the country since 2000, show that only 62% of peri-urban areas have access to water that meets government standards, while in rural areas only 45% of people have access to safe drinking water.

These are the areas where democracy has clearly failed to deliver in Malawi. If left unchecked, it could result in voter apathy, which is harmful for a developing democracy. We need people to continue participating in politics, but if voting patterns are anything to go by, Malawians are already losing trust in political parties.

The number of independent parliamentarians in the country has grown with every election. There was no single independent MP in 1994 when Malawians voted for the first time. Ten years later, 40 independent MPs won elections. The 2014 elections produced more independent MPs – 52 – than any political party.

There is this general perception that African democracies are flawed, which is not without justification of course, but which democracy is perfect? The danger of this view is that we tend to concentrate on the negatives only. Malawi’s democracy has shown resilience when faced with tricky situations. Service delivery and the Cashgate scandal continue to cast a shadow but when it comes to succession, politicians in Malawi have always respected the rule of law, which is a good sign for any democracy.

Jimmy Kainja is an academic, lecturing at Chancellor College, University of Malawi. Hes also a current affairs and political analyst and blogger. He is interested in news media, communications and political & social changes, particularly in Malawi. He blogs at www.jimmykainja.co.uk. Follow him on Twitter:@jkainja 

Malawi’s prized chambo fish faces extinction

In the decade that fisherman Edward Njeleza has been trawling the deep, clear waters of Lake Malawi in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, he has seen his once abundant catch shrink by 90 percent.

Now he spends most days on the shore searching for pods and a special type of grass he uses to make necklaces, key rings and bracelets to supplement his income.

In the past, he and his nine fishing mates would on average catch roughly 300 kilograms (650 pounds) of fish a day, but that haul has dropped to no more than 25 kilograms, he told AFP.

“We go fishing but never come back with much,” said Njeleza, waiting by the lake with a bag full of homemade jewellery slung over his shoulder.

“And we don’t catch big fish.”

Malawian fishermen pulling up fish in their nets on the shores of Lake Malawi. (Pic: AFP)
Malawian fishermen pulling up fish in their nets on the shores of Lake Malawi. (Pic: AFP)

Lake Malawi, one of the deepest in the world, is estimated to have the largest concentration of freshwater fish species – up to 1 000, according to the UN Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

And a local favourite, the Oreochromis lidole or “chambo” as it is known in this landlocked southeast Africa state where it is a vital source of protein for millions of poor, is among the hardest hit.

In its last study on chambo, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated in 2004 that the population had declined 70 percent over the previous 10 years, William Darwall, head of the IUCN’s freshwater biodiversity unit, told AFP.

Overfishing is the main cause, and scientists blame both a lack of government muscle to enforce seasonal fishing bans as well as environmental degradation.

“The primary reasons why the fish stocks, specifically chambo, are going down is overfishing, (and) degradation issues because of factors related to the effects of climate change,” said William Chadza, director of the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy in Blantyre, the country’s finance and commerce hub.

Climate change is said to have affected rainfall patterns and caused a drop in the lake’s water levels, also hit by the effects of deforestation on tributaries feeding the lake.

‘Going towards a disaster’
In Makawa fishing village near Mangochi town in the country’s southeast, Njeleza has no choice but to diversify.

Apart from making jewellery, he hopes to bait the odd tourist visiting the lake into a ride in his blue and white boat, which he has named Wanangachi, meaning “What is the problem with us?”

At night he returns to fishing, but stays much longer than in previous years.

“We used to spend just about two hours out on the lake and come back with a boatload of fish – now we need about 12 hours, and bring back less than before,” Njeleza said.

Some officials fear chambo could face extinction in Lake Malawi.

“It’s a very big issue, and I think if we don’t do something … we could be in a dire state shortly,” Chadza told AFP.

But rangers say the fight to save the fish is a losing battle.

“We are not winning,” said Gervaz Thamala, chief of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi.

Laws to protect the chambo exist, but “the major problem which we have is governance,” Thamala said.

“It seems we are going towards a disaster, which is quite critical,” he warned. “Extinction is also a possibility because we have not fully developed the aquaculture sector, which could act as a buffer.”

Back at the lake, Dogo Morris leads a team of 10 fishermen pulling in their nets, cast six hours earlier, but their haul is only about 10 kilograms of fingerlings.

“I have nothing to sell today,” he tells more than a dozen would-be customers, who walk away dejectedly clutching their empty bowls.

Fishmonger Raymond Johnson, who supplies hotels and restaurants in Blantyre, Malawi’s largest city, has waited three days to purchase chambo, which he buys in bulk – hundreds of kilograms per trip to the lake.

“My business is not doing well. It has gone down by 40 to 45 percent,” said Johnson.

Back in Blantyre, restaurant owners share his despair, saying diners complain that the fish on their plates are getting smaller all the time.

Susan Njanji for AFP

Tough road ahead for Malawi’s Mutharika

(Pic: AFP)
(Pic: AFP)

After days of confusion, court injunctions, accusations of vote rigging and a series of irregularities with the voting process, Malawi finally has a new president. Peter Mutharika, an academic and a younger brother to Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s former president who died in office in 2012, was sworn in on Saturday and inaugurated on Monday, June 2. He is Malawi’s fifth president.

Mutharika’s victory, with only 36% of the national vote, does not represent a total change in local politics; it is more of a continuation of his brother’s presidency, which was punctuated by Joyce Banda’s two-year rule. Bingu wa Mutharika died while lining up his young brother to succeed him. Peter’s victory has accomplished that mission, which seemed improbable when a heart attack cut short Bingu’s life on the morning of April 5 2012.

Joyce Banda, then state vice president, replaced the late Mutharika, in line with a constitutional provision.

On May 20 this year, Banda led her own party into an election for the first time. She lost badly, finishing a distant third with 20.2%, after Mutharika’s 36% and Lazarus Chakwera’s 27.8%. It is the first time in Malawi that a sitting president has lost an election since the country held its first democratic election in 1994.

Mutharika’s much-anticipated inaugural speech on Monday did not live up to most Malawians’ expectations. It lacked the weight and clarity of the speech his brother delivered 10 years ago. But then it touched on almost every sector of the economy, from tomato vendors to foreign policy. Perhaps this underlines the fact that Peter Mutharika is more of an academic than a politician, unlike his brother. In fact, it’s unlikely that Peter Mutharika would be in politics today had his brother not ruled Malawi first.

Most parts of his speech were a carbon copy of his party’s manifesto. The promise of a small cabinet of no more than 20 ministers, for instance. This is a big deal in Malawi, a country that is used to having up to 40 cabinet ministers, including their deputies.

Mutharika made it a point to clarify that he has no axe to grind with his rivals. Singling out his arch-rival Joyce Banda, Mutharika expressed his disappointment at her absence at the inauguration ceremony even though she had been invited

The rivalry between Mutharika and Banda dates back to the time when Banda deputised Bingu. Banda is on record saying that Bingu promised that she would succeed him, but this changed when Peter Mutharika came into the picture. Bingu opted for his young brother as a successor. The row led to Banda’s expulsion from Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Banda and few colleagues then formed their own political group, eventually registering it as the People’s Party (PP). Bingu’s death meant that Banda would form a government, taking her party with her and therefore relegating DPP to opposition benches.

Peter Mutharika and few DPP top officials tried in vain to prevent Banda from succeeding  Bingu. Their attempt to stop her from ascending to the presidency later resulted in Peter Mutharika and his colleagues being charged with treason – charges that still stand. With the recent turn of events, however, the treason charges against Mutharika are unlikely to stick as sitting presidents in Malawi have immunity from prosecution.

In fact local analysts believe the tables will be turned, and it will be Joyce Banda facing prosecution now, most likely on corruption charges. Many unresolved high-profile corruption cases happened on her watch, most notably the colossal looting of over $100 million from government coffers by senior civil servant and politicians, known as “Cashgate”. The fact that Mutharika says he wants to bury the past and move on may be assuring but history shows that every former president in Malawi has faced a court case of some kind. Joyce Banda will be aware of this.

Foreign policy
The other key issue to emerge from Mutharika’s inaugural speech was foreign policy. It’s clear that the new president is not sure of western donor support. He said foreign policy would be based on “what is best for Malawi”, adding that Malawi would continue with traditional relationships with donor countries and organisations “but we are now looking for new friends in the emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Russia”.

It is a loaded and multifaceted statement but it shows that Mutharika is accurately aware that he has his work cut out insofar as winning confidence of traditional donors is concerned. To start with, at the time of Bingu’s death, most donor countries had deserted Malawi due to Bingu’s undiplomatic tendencies, poor governance and his increasingly autocratic behaviour. Crucially, Peter Mutharika was foreign affairs minister at the time; he must have been involved in diplomatic negotiations one way or another. It is most likely that most donors have grown cold feet at Peter Mutharika’s victory. Mutharika’s emphasis on looking for “new friends” suggests that he is worried about it.

Furthermore, Mutharika has inherited a government that has lost 40% of annual budget support which comes from donors. Donors decided to withhold this support late last year in response to the “Cashgate” revelations. Convincing donors to release the cash will be Mutharika’s first task. The president needs no reminding of how much Malawi suffered economically under his brother’s rule when donors froze budgetary support. Bingu died with Malawi’s economy on the verge of collapse – Peter Mutharika cannot afford to start his presidency on this note.

Irrespective of his victory, Mutharika still needs to win the confidence of a lot of Malawians. Sixty-four percent of Malawians voted against him. He won the election via the country’s shambolic first-past-the-post voting system, which does not require a re-run even if the leading candidate fails to get more than 50% of the vote. Bingu Mutharika initially came to power in 2004 with only 35% of the national vote. However, his excellent performance in his first term won him a second term with a landslide of 63%. Peter will be looking to achieve the same, albeit under different circumstances.

Jimmy Kainja is an academic, lecturing at Chancellor College, University of Malawi. Hes also a current affairs and political analyst and blogger. He is interested in news media, communications and political & social changes, particularly in Malawi. He blogs at www.jimmykainja.co.uk. Follow him on Twitter: @jkainja