Madonna's star power in Malawi

By AFP

June 18, 2010 Updated Jun 20, 2009 at 9:10 PM EST

Eliza Manyoza, a banana vendor in Malawi's colonial-era capital Zomba, says she has never heard a Madonna song. She only knows the American pop icon as an "adopter" of orphaned children.

"I am told she is a nice woman who wants to help our children," Manyoza, 39, told AFP, with her nine-month-old baby strapped at her back and balancing a basket of bananas on her head.

She knew that Madonna had adopted David Banda, a toddler the star met at an orphanage three years ago, but had just learned of the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal's decision to grant her a second adoption of a girl named Chifundo "Mercy" James, who let Malawi Friday to join the singer in London.

"That's great news and very nice of her," Manyoza said. "But how many children can she take out of Malawi? Where are the rich Malawians who should be adopting their own children and not leave it to Madonna?"

Her sentiments echo those heard around the country, where Madonna has sparked a global debate about the merits of international adoption.

Malawi is a particularly grim case study in the plight of orphans.

One of the poorest nations in the world, the government says 1.5 million children have been orphaned by AIDS -- a figure that represents nearly 10 percent of the total population.

Manyoza lives in the slums of Chikanda, a shantytown on the edge of this British colonial town, where 12 orphanages have opened -- many in just the last two years.

Hundreds more are spread across Malawi, a country the size of New York state.

"We have reached a crisis point and Malawi does not have the resources to deal with the problem," said Cyrus Jeke, an official at the ministry of women and child development.

Madonna has established her own charity Raising Malawi, which has built a state-of-the-art hostel at Home of Hope in Mchinji -- the orphanage where she first saw her adopted son David among the 500 children cared for there.

She has also built a day-care centre at Consol Home, a charity which looks after 10,000 orphans in scores of villages outside the administrative capital Lilongwe.

Rights activist Undule Mwakasungura laments the fact that a foreign celebrity had to step in to raise awareness about orphans.

"It's the primary responsibility of the state to provide for orphaned children," he said.

Government should use tax revenue to "care for these children instead of abandoning them to the wishes and devises of celebrities," said Mwakasungura, who chairs the Human Rights Consultative Committee -- a network of 85 local rights groups.

Boniface Mandere, an official of the nation's leading child rights body Eye of the Child, said Malawi has financial resources to help vulnerable children.

"What we lack is wisdom of how to use those resources. It's about commitment. We need to pump more resources to social services," he said.

Plan Malawi, an international charity focussing on children, applauded Madonna's good intentions, but urged her to do more to lobby governments and businesses to strengthen community structures on the ground, Plan adds.

"The challenges facing our orphans and other vulnerable children can be handled with a strong social protection structure," said Mcdonald Mumba, Plan's children's rights advisor.

Such questions about why the government has not done more to care for the nation's children reverberate through the country, casting a particularly harsh light on the political classes and the wealthy.

"It all shows Madonna saw that the question of orphans is a serious issue which needs addressing," Manyoza said.

"But where are the rich Malawians? Where are the rich politicians? Where is the government? Madonna will not manage alone even though she has a lot of money."




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