The abandoned site looks more like a quarried mine than a pop superstar’s multi-million-dollar dream to groom girls into Malawi’s next leaders and doctors. But the bleak, levelled terraces of gravelly sand near Malawi’s capital are the only evidence of Madonna’s $15 million academy which was ditched in a cloud over misused funds and disgruntled locals.
“This has just become a football ground now,” said local chief Binson Kalenga. The bulldozers are long silent where Madonna — who adopted two children from Malawi — laid a foundation stone engraved ‘dare to dream’ in April 2010, in a village in a desperately poor African country that many could not find on a map. A year later the school had been called off.
The star is being sued by former employees, her charity is tied up in a US tax investigation and the Malawi government is investigating how the land was paid for. “Initially although I welcomed it, personally I was very sceptical about the whole thing,” said Lilongwe district commissioner Paul Kalilombe. In January 2011, she said the academy project was off in favour of helping existing schools across the country. The New York Times reported on an audit, ordered by Madonna, and found $3.8 million squandered on the discarded academy.
In Chinkhota, unhappiness began with payments to villagers for the land which Madonna’s charity Raising Malawi, paid through the government. An explanation is yet to reach villagers, who have to swallow a doubly bitter pill with their former fields ruined and not a classroom in sight. “People were surprised that there is no activity,” said Tsiyent Foroyati. As the biggest landowner around the school’s site, she was paid 39,000 kwacha ($258) in compensation.
For the school, Madonna should have worked with an existing organisation that knows “what is actually happening on the ground”, said Kalilombe who believes an orphanage is planned for the academy site.
“She had good intentions, but implementing the project on the ground brought a lot of complications.”
Chief Kalenga said he wants to ask Madonna why the project failed. “We welcomed her as a fellow Malawian,” he said. “We are heartbroken because of the rumours we still hear about this project being stopped. Madonna should come and tell us what has happened.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2011.