The Problematic Pop-Culture Movement to 'Save' Africa


Madonna, famous for going to extremes to gain attention, is reminding the world in a fresh way that Americans abroad are dangerous. A widening controversy surrounds her adoption of a one-year-old African baby from the impoverished country of Malawi. And the debacle illustrates how ham-handed, clumsy and ineffective American aid efforts can be. Stunts like Madonna's perversely tend to reinforce Americans' sense of moral superiority -- without doing much for the aid recipients themselves.

The former Material Girl's misadventures in adopting the boy, David Banda, have made her the newest Ugly American -- big-footing her way through a foreign country, violating local laws and sensibilities in the name of a private agenda she calls "doing good." Now even the father of the boy says Madonna's adoption is a mistake, joining a growing number of human-rights critics is saying the entertainer should return the child.

"Saving" Africans is all the rage among celebrities. Hollywood is releasing a string of African morality tales, from "The Last King of Scotland," about Idi Amin's capricious rule, to "Blood Diamonds," the story of a white smuggler in West Africa who has pangs of regret over his misdeeds. Bono, who campaigns actively for African aid, unveiled his "Red" campaign last week, aimed at getting consumers to buy certain products -- and thus generate assistance funds for Africa.

Yet the Red marketing campaign, targeting youth, seems transparently dumb. One Gap advertisement, for instance, declares, "Can a Jacket Change the World? This One Can," by helping to "eliminate Aids in Africa." No details provided on how, of course.

If American consumers can be led to believe that the purchase of a jacket can assist poor Africans, then Madonna's own logic -- she thinks she can help Africa one adoption at a time -- is rock solid. Yet in her rush to claim the moral high ground, she messed up on the details, creating her own private Iraq war. The most damning overlooked detail: Her adopted son has a father who dumped him into an orphanage, he says, because he was too poor to care for the child.

But poverty should not mean the child should lose contact with his father who, after all, lives near the orphanage. There are tens of thousands of children who have lost both their parents to the AIDS pandemic. Couldn't Madonna have adopted one of those?

Maybe she just didn't know any better. On the ground, Africa is confusing terrain. I know, because I've walked in Madonna's shoes, looking for orphans in her very own Malawi.

Just days before the pop diva turned up in Malawi to bring home an African child orphaned by the AIDS pandemic, I left the country after a visit of 17 days during which I reported on rural poverty. There I met many AIDS orphans -- and people caring for them.

One in five adults is infected by HIV/AIDS in Malawi, so husband-and-wife deaths are not unusual. Every Malawian village has AIDS orphans, and every extended family, across this small country of about 12 million people, is caring for one or more as well. I met some of these orphans without even looking for them, finding them not in orphanages, but in private homes. Malawians, it seems, take in the children of their dead brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, at rates that might astound Madonna. They support these orphans out of generosity and a sense of obligation, even if they suffer hardships as a result.

One afternoon, in a dusty village in central Malawi, I sat down to lunch with a very poor family. The main dish served was nsima, a porridge made from cornmeal and served steaming hot. The side dish was pumpkin. No protein at this banquet. There was not enough food even to satisfy my host's children, in part because in addition to his four kids, three others ate with us. They were the children of his dead wife's sister and husband.

My host, a small farmer named Lorence, explained that he fears these children will die if he does not help them. "I won't give them up," he says.

Last year, he built a small house from mud and dried grass for the children. The house is about 50 feet from his own.

Lorence's generosity, so typical of big-hearted Malawians, belies the presumption that Africans can't take care of themselves, even in times of distress. This presumption animates Madonna's promises of charity -- and the entire pop-culture movement to aid Africa.

By reducing Africans to the status of props in an American morality play, Africans are themselves robbed of some measure of their dignity, which is why a number of Malawians are upset by Madonna's fast-track adoption. Perhaps because she has pledged to raise money on behalf of other orphans in Malawi, Madonna received a waiver from the country's normal regulations covering adoptions in order to bring the young David Banda to London this week.

The exemption Madonna received has sparked a coalition of 40 groups to ask the government to compel the pop star to return the child to Malawi. Now even the boy’s father appears to oppose the adoption, saying he didn’t understand the legal papers he signed on Madonna’s behalf. Later this month, an African court may agree. What then? Will Madonna defy the Malawians and refuse to return her African baby, citing international human-rights law on her behalf?

Madonna isn't the first celebrity to adopt an African child. Angelina Jolie adopted a child from Ethiopia in 2005. She also gave birth to a baby in Namibia, a thinly populated coastal desert in southwest Africa that is well-known as a hangout for wealthy white South Africans and mellow Euro-trash.

Jolie would have trumped Madonna in audacity had she instead given birth to a baby in Malawi, where the hospitals are far from pleasant. During my time in country, a newborn baby died in a hospital in the capital of Lilongwe after a government nurse failed to fill an IV. The infant had just been successfully operated by a foreign volunteer who was furious with the nursing lapse. Too bad Jolie couldn't have experienced the standard level of hospital care.

Besides, if Jolie had only given birth in Malawi, the actress and the diva could be conferring right now, plotting their next humanitarian actions. Jolie, for instance, has publicly declared her intention to adopt again. Could another African baby be in her future?

Jolie told CNN in June she will make their decision on who to adopt based on "the balance of what would be best" for her current children. "It's, you know, another boy, another girl, which country, which race would fit best with the kids," she said.

By adopting again, Jolie is sending a signal to Madonna and other celebrities who want to help poor Africans one by one. Or maybe she is simply taking to a new level the cynical use of African children as props in media routines aimed at bolstering the appeal of female stars.

Either way, these adoptions highlight the complexities of helping people halfway around the world whose way of life we often know little about.

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