JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When Madonna adopted daughter Mercy James from an orphanage in Malawi, a judge ruled that the adoption could go ahead, despite Madonna not being a resident, because of the pop star’s charitable work in the impoverished country.
But as Madonna, 54, makes her first visit to Malawi in two years, she is dogged by criticism over her efforts to build rural schools, and over the cancellation of a planned Oprah-style girls’ academy.
Among the critics are Malawi’s president and the country’s education minister, whose spokesperson last year said the country was “fed up” with the singer and the lack of government consultation over her plans.
Madonna arrived by private jet in the capital Lilongwe over the weekend — with her children in tow — on a goodwill mission to inspect schools built by her charity, Raising Malawi. Villagers thronged the family on Tuesday when they visited a school in Chorwe, north of the capital.
On Wednesday, Madonna and her brood headed to the Home of Hope orphanage where son David Banda spent his first year, and which she continues to fund.
But Madonna hasn't met with the president. A senior Malawian official claimed Madonna and her team haven’t contacted President Joyce Banda, the second-ever female African president who took power after her autocratic predecessor died of a heart attack last year. Banda has received praise from Western donor countries for her relatively progressive stances on issues such as gay rights.
Trevor Neilsen, president of the Global Philanthropy Group, which manages Madonna’s charity work, confirmed there was no meeting scheduled between the singer and Banda. But Neilsen said he had reached out several times to Banda's office, including hand-delivering letters, and if the president has time, "we would be pleased to meet her."
Banda has in the past criticized Madonna for “changing her mind” over a plan to build an elite academy for girls.
In 2011, Madonna stopped construction on the $15-million Raising Malawi Academy for Girls and fired staff after allegations of financial mismanagement. She said her charity would instead build 10 primary schools for orphans and vulnerable children.
Neilsen said the 10 new schools opened in time for the start of the Malawian school year in January, and were built in partnership with a non-profit group called BuildOn. The schools serve some 4,800 children, “many of whom previously went to school under a tree,” he said.
"The trip so far has been incredible, Madonna and her family have been welcomed by hundreds of singing and dancing villagers at the schools we visited," Nielsen said. "The impact of these small schools is transformative for the communities they are in."
But Eunice Kazembe, the Malawian education minister, refuted claims that Madonna’s charity had built 10 new schools, saying her contribution has been overstated.
“It is classrooms that she has donated. They have built 10 classroom blocks,” she said.
“When you look at the totality of it, it is helpful, every bit helps, but it is a long shot to call it significant.”
Neilsen said in response: “I don't know what that person is talking about, the schools are built to the national standard and now thousands of kids are sitting in classrooms instead of under trees.”
Malawi, nicknamed “the warm heart of Africa,” is a small, landlocked country where most of the population survives on subsistence agriculture, and the government relies heavily on foreign aid for its education and health systems.
In addition to building schools, the Raising Malawi charity supports grassroots groups that help care for orphans and vulnerable children.
Madonna has promised to bring her two adopted Malawian children, Mercy and David, back to the country every two or three years. It is unclear whether on this trip they will meet with their relatives, which include David’s biological father.
Steve Nhlane, the presidential press secretary, noted that both President Banda and Madonna have a mutual special interest in education for girls.
“I’m sure that Her Excellency would be willing to meet with her [Madonna] if she puts in a request,” he said.