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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mercy Madonna of Malawi - report from Malawi

Mercy Madonna of Malawi - theatre preview

Published in Scotland on Sunday


THIS morning the Kumbali Cultural Village is deserted. It's just us and a cluster of mud huts surrounding a thatched amphitheatre, its stage open to the sky.

A couple of months ago, here on the outskirts of Lilongwe, it was all different. With a flurry of excitement, Madonna, that most Western of pop stars, came to be entertained by a Malawian theatre troupe on this very stage. With press and paparazzi kept well away, she made the short journey down the dirt track from Kumbali Lodge, her upmarket base in Malawi, bringing 24 bodyguards – nine local, the rest from her own staff – to make an unlikely audience for the afternoon show.

The play she watched was about a returning expat who won't stop complaining about the state of Malawi compared with his adoptive home in the West. Only after being seduced by the rhythms of a traditional African dance does he realise how much the lifestyle of the azungo (the Malawian word for white man) has stressed him out. "Azungos do everything by the clock," he says. "Now I'm realising that all the white people have got watches, but we Malawians have got the time."

It was a wise observation, but from the audience, Madonna took it as her cue. "No, you don't have the time," heckled the original Material Girl. "You need to work hard. Money is the answer to everything."

For performer Shambi Banda, Madge's remark summed up the moral dilemma this rich white woman presents. She was in the country to adopt four-year-old Mercy James, a sister for David Banda, yet everything she represents seems at odds with Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries. "Personally, it has brought a lot of drama in my head," he says today. "How many kids are orphans in the world; why has she chosen Malawi? There are some areas where we Malawians are a little bit lazy. Whenever someone wants to tamper with the constitution of Malawi, as long as he or she has got cash, we just say yes."

It is this tension between rich and poor that underscores Mercy Madonna Of Malawi, an upbeat musical coming to the Edinburgh Fringe that gives a distinctively African spin on the pop star's adventures in this far-off landlocked country. Directed by Toby Gough – whose previous Fringe successes include Children Of The Sea, which was performed by survivors of the Asian tsunami – it fuses traditional Malawian dance with Western-influenced music to question the rights and wrongs of a contentious story. Against expectation, the show does not paint Madonna as the villain, however, although having her played by a tall black man in a blonde wig gives you some idea of the play's knockabout irreverence. That's because the disquiet expressed by Banda is far from universal among Malawians. On the show's first public performance in a remote village deep in the countryside near Mulanje mountain, I see this for myself. Quizzed by an actor playing a TV reporter outside the Blantyre courtroom, the audience of villagers are united in their opinion that Mercy James should be allowed to go with the pop star. However hard the actor tries, there is not a single dissenting voice.

"In Malawi we have so many kids suffering, so if we have someone who says she is capable of looking after them, we don't have problems giving them away," says Ben Michael Mankhamba, the country's leading political songwriter, who has contributed a number of songs to the show.

"It's better the kids have a better life than be suffering here. You can't look after everybody, so if somebody comes and picks two or three, it's better for them. Some people are lucky, some are unlucky, so let's not bar the chances for others. People who are graduating from universities all want to leave Malawi, so why should we stop a kid? My only view is that now and then they should be bringing them back to the original country, so they don't forget it."

Such opinions highlight the economic disparity between the developed and developing worlds. Many Malawians see it as a great opportunity to be taken under the wing of a wealthy Western pop star – even if her music is known only hazily ("I knew her from the radio, not from the looks," says Ben Michael). Few are troubled that the supreme court judges effectively exempted Madonna from the law that adoptive parents must live in the country for 24 months as well as be married.

Nobody knows too much about Kabbala, the mystical branch of Judaism to which the star subscribes, but a leftfield religion seems a fair price to pay in return for the work of her Raising Malawi children's charity. Above all, they're glad David Banda and Mercy James have a chance to better themselves in the West – and maybe they'll return one day to make use of their wealth and education.

Talking to people here, you start to wonder if objecting to Madonna is a privilege only rich Westerners can afford. Would the story remind me of the dark days of the colonial slave trade, which David Livingstone campaigned against in this very country, if I weren't an oversensitive white man? After all, Madonna clearly wants to love and care for her children – and she wasn't to know that both fathers are still around – so what harm can it do?

Maxwell Matewere has some answers. He is executive director of Eye of the Child, the campaigning watchdog that objected to both of Madonna's adoptions in court. Over tea in a Blantyre hotel, he explains in lawyerly detail how different such cases look the moment you put the interests of the child at the heart of the argument. "We spend our time trying to change people's attitudes towards children," he says of his organisation. "If you ask most families – even members of parliament – what assets they have, they will say, 'I have a chair, a house, a car and I have children.' So children are counted as part of our assets, meaning you can do anything you want to them."

Although ultimately unsuccessful, he regards Eye of the Child's challenges to Madonna in court as important test cases that will help bring an antiquated law up to date. "I do understand the position of most of the Malawians who think this is a fantastic opportunity, but even if we had millions of orphans, should we say that they should lose some of their rights?" he says, observing that some orphanages use adoption as a way of raising money and one has even tried to auction children on the internet. "Or should we forget our responsibility as adults to care and provide protection? If Madonna comes, should we say she can have as many children as she likes? That's not on."

He believes the parent's contribution to Malawi should not be a criterion for adoption. More important is to know what provision will be made to care for and protect the child once abroad. Better still would be to find a way to support the child within Malawi. "We are afraid if we're not careful that, with this understanding, in order for a foreigner to adopt children there has to be some compensation as part of the process," he says.

"The Supreme Court mentioned that Madonna had demonstrated her commitment to Malawi (by investing in schools]. But if you have to subject adoption to that, what is your interest? Is it to find a family for the child or to find the money to contribute to the shortfalls of our system? We should look into the eyes of the children and come up with a solution to help them. We have so many children who need care, but the best solution is to find ways to care for them locally, not exporting them."

These arguments mean that when the cast gather round a cross-dressed Madonna wearing T-shirts sporting the slogan "Adopt me" with an arrow pointing to their faces, it is both funny and poignant. The show makes no comment on Madge's motives, but uses the situation to reflect – in an infectiously musical way – on a world in which the bonds of family, culture and country can be broken by the brute force of economics.

"Malawi is not as terrible as people make out; it's not a place you have to take people away from," says director Toby Gough, who created the African Julius Caesar in the country in 1998. "It's not a land of death and famine; it's a very vibrant, friendly place. One argument is that Madonna can take the child out because she's got the money to do it. The other argument is she is a woman who cares for the children of Africa and is using her money to help out. I don't think there's any right or wrong answer." v

Mercy Madonna Of Malawi, St George's West, Edinburgh, 7–31 August, 3pm www.theworldfestival.com, www.edfringe.com


© Mark Fisher 2009

4 comments:

ezipson said...

All i got to say is "wow!!" this is so great a piece. i like the respect given to theater and its views on the matter. it should be a lesson to all people who think theater can not handle any serious issues.

Anonymous said...

The charity 'Raising Malawi' (PR firm) founded by Madonna AND TWO OTHERS over three years ago held fund raisers for over two years before finally getting registered as a non-profit. In other words, Madonna and the others were free to squander the lion's share of that funding any way they saw fit for those first two years. She also pleaded with her fans worldwide for donations along the way. In the meantime, she toured the world to promote her latest CD and raked in another $280,000,000 gross in just over 12 months. To date, the basic financial info for 'Rasing Malawi' still hasn't been posted on the website or anywhere else. The 'progress' page only tells of the collective works by over 20 seperate charities. Each of which have their own sources of funding and may have recieved some sort of promotion or support from 'Raising Malawi' in order to be considered 'partners'. But no indication is made how much of their funding came from 'Raising Malawi' or how much of their progress if any could be directly attributed to 'Raising Malawi'. The fans/donors have no clue how many millions of dollars were raised in that first two years, no clue how much Madonna herself chipped in, and no clue how the money was spent before they finally registered as a non-profit. No clue what tiny little fraction of funding or works listed on that 'progress' page could be directly attributed to 'Raising Malawi'. Nothing to go on but the vague word of Madonna. The vague and very misleading word of Madonna. For example: She states in her latest promotional video that she will match any contributions made to her charity (PR firm) "dollar for dollar". However there is a disclaimer posted on the website for 'Raising Malawi' that Madonna's total contribution will not exceed $100,000. Thats not per donation. Thats a maximum of $100,000 TOTAL. Less than a single days pay for Madonna. Also much less then she will surely rake in by promoting her own CDs, DVDs, and 'for profit' merchandise through this massive worldwide publicity stunt. So I called the office of 'Raising Malawi' in an attempt to verify some sort of efficient financial operation (310) 867-2881 or (888) 72-DONOR). These details are ALWAYS made available by legitimate charities to their potential donors. But not in this case. I got nothing but recorded messages and hangups. So I did some research on my own. 'Rasing Malawi' still hasn't been given any kind of rating by ANY independent charity watchdog like Charitywatch.org. The vast overwhelming majority of 'celebrity' foundations never are. In general, they are inneficient and riddled with corruption. Like the promotion of CDs, world tours, commercial websites, entire lines of jewelry (not just the single piece from which proceeds are donated), and high end fashion retail flagship stores. Celebrity foundations are also notorious for squandering much of their funding on travel and super high end accomodations for their celebrity figure heads. Its legal even for a nonprofit but not noble or efficient by any stretch of the imagination. In general, 'celebrity' foundations are a twisted inefficient mutant of charity, self-promotion, and PR crap. They actually compete for funding with more efficient legitimate charities who do more work with less money. Its a sham. So if its not rated, then don't support it. Instead, support a top rated charity like any of those given high ratings at Charitywatch.org.

Anonymous said...

We have been mislead by Reagan, Bush Sr, Clinton, Bush Jr, Obama, and nearly every other public figure. Economic growth, job creation, and actual prosperity are not necessarily a package deal. In fact, the first two are horribly misunderstood. Economic growth/loss (GDP) is little more than a measure of wealth changing hands. A transfer of currency from one party to another. The rate at which it is traded. This was up until mid '07' however, has never been a measure of actual prosperity. Neither has job creation. The phrase itself has been thrown around so often, and in such a generic political manner, that it has come to mean nothing. Of course, we need to have certain things done for the benefit of society as a whole. We need farmers, builders, manufacturers, transporters, teachers, cops, firefighters, soldiers, mechanics, sanitation workers, doctors, managers, and visionaries. Their work is vital. I'll even go out on a limb and say that we need politicians, attorneys, bankers, investors, and entertainers. In order to keep them productive, we must provide reasonable incentives. We need to compensate each by a fair measure for their actual contributions to society. We need to provide a reasonable scale of income opportunity for every independent adult, every provider, and share responsibility for those who have a legitimate need for aid. In order to achieve and sustain this, we must also address the cost of living and the distribution of wealth. Here, we have failed miserably. The majority have already lost their home equity, their financial security, and their relative buying power. The middle class have actually lost much of their ability to make ends meet, re-pay loans, pay taxes, and support their own economy. The lower class have gone nearly bankrupt. In all, its a multi-trillion dollar loss taken over about 30 years. Millions are under the impression that we need to create more jobs simply to provide more opportunity. as if that would solve the problem. It won't. Not by a longshot. Jobs don't necessarily create wealth. In fact, they almost never do. For the mostpart, they only transfer wealth from one party to another. A gain here. A loss there. Appreciation in one community. Depreciation in another. In order to create net wealth, you must harvest a new resource or make more efficient use of one. Either way you must have a reliable and ethical system in place to distribute that newly created wealth in order to benefit society as a whole and prevent a lagging downside. The 'free market' just doesn't cut it. Its a farce. Many of the jobs created are nothing but filler. The promises empty. Sure, unemployment reached an all-time low under Bush. GDP reached an all-time high. But those are both shallow and misleading indicators. In order to gauge actual prosperity, you must consider the economy in human terms. As of '08' the average American was working more hours than the previous generation with far less equity to show for it. Consumer debt, forclosure, and bankruptcy were also at all-time highs. As of '08', every major American city was riddled with depressed communities, neglected neighborhoods, failing infrastructures, lost revenue, and gang activity. All of this has coincided with massive economic growth and job production. Meanwhile, the rich have been getting richer and richer and richer even after taxes. Our nation's wealth has been concentrated. Again, this represents a multi-trillion dollar loss taken by the majority. Its an absolute deal breaker. Bottom line: With or without economic growth or job production, you must have a system in place to prevent too much wealth from being concentrated at the top. Unfortunately, we don't. Our economy has become nothing but a giant game of Monopoly. The richest one percent already own nearly 1/2 of all United States wealth. More than double their share before Reagan took office. Still, they want more. They absolutely will not stop. Now, our society as a whole is in serious jeapordy. Greed kills.

Anonymous said...

Its all a sham. Nothing but tax deductible PR crap. Make the people love you. Take their money. Convince them that you're making the world a better place. Take more of their money. Be nothing but a greedy sell-out hypocrite pig with a fake commercial personality and a fake cause to pose for. Concentrate even more of the world's wealth and resources and lead the ignorant masses to believe that you're doing the opposite. I can't stop them and I can't punish them but I can tell you that their bogus promises to make the world a better place will not be kept. Any 'humanitarian' progress made in one area will always be lost in another with a net loss for the majority. There will be more poverty. More starvation. More conflict. Meanwhile the rich will keep getting richer and richer and richer. They will always dumb us down and divert our attention from one area to another. Just like they have been for at least 25 years. Ethipoia (still bad), Darfur (even worse), Malawi (still bad). As they concentrate more and more of the world's wealth and resources, they will cause more inflation, more poverty, more starvation, and more conflict on a global scale. In order to divert our attention, they will adopt another cause to pose for. and another. and another. and another. Each time, putting their fake humanitarian stamp on it and jet-setting the world in the name of 'humanity'. Actually charging their private jet rides and 5 star hotel accomodations to their own bogus 'foundations'. Pleading with us to buy more of their products and support more of their 'good will'. Taking more of our money and throwing a few crumbs back to the poor along the way. With another photo-op and worldwide publicity for each and every crumb. Like I said, its all a sham. Nothing but a giant marketing gimmick and a cheap excuse to keep getting richer and richer and richer. These people are actually causing the same problems they pretend to care about. It is the greatest scam of all time. I will not forgive them for it. I will expose as many as possible for the hypocrite pigs that they are. Thats my cause. Its the ugly truth. Someone has to tell it.