Wishing Madonna Ciccone a happy 53rd birthday…
Madonna and Malawi: ‘I Am Because We Are’
“People have asked, “Why did you choose Malawi?” I always answer, “I didn’t. Malawi chose me.”
Madonna’s involvement with Africa began when she was approached by a Malawian businesswoman, Victoria Keelan, who told her about the million native children orphaned by AIDS. (Madonna was one of the first celebrities to campaign for victims of the disease during the 1980s.)
On her second visit to the country, in September 2006, Madonna decided to adopt a year-old boy, David Banda, whom she had first met at the Home of Hope orphanage in April. She was concerned by his rapidly declining health. The adoption led to a media storm because the boy’s natural father was still alive. However, he gave his consent and the adoption went ahead.
What was less reported at the time is that Madonna – who was already involved in the Spirituality for Kids initiative – had also founded her own charity, Raising Malawi, with the intention of building a school for girls in the country.
Throughout 2006 and 2007, Madonna produced a documentary, I Am Because We Are, about her work in Malawi. Directed by Nathan Rissman, it received its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, New York, in April 2008.
“To say that this film is a labor of love is trivial,” Madonna has stated. “It’s also the journey of a lifetime.”
‘I Am Because We Are’
Orphaned children have a personal resonance for Madonna, who lost her mother to cancer at the age of five. ‘When you lose your parents, you lose your direction,’ she explains.
Edith, mother of Sinode, was dying of AIDS when she met Madonna. She lived in a remote village and was too weak to travel to hospital. Elora, mother of Mavuto, was filmed on her deathbed. ‘I have failed to do what I wanted to do,’ she says, meaning that she is unable to provide for her son. One young man reflects on the loss of his mother, years before: ‘She never had the chance to enjoy the fruits of her labour.’
Older children are left to take care of their siblings. David Banda, Madonna’s adopted son, was one of three infants under the care of a little girl named Wezi at the Home of Hope orphanage. Wezi, born HIV positive, depended on monthly deliveries of antiretroviral drugs from her grandmother. But many families cannot afford these life-saving treatments.
Successive Malawian governments ignored the rise of AIDS. Now many children will grow up without parents, the crisis can no longer be denied. At the time of filming, 79% of the population lived on less than a dollar a day, allowing most children just one meal.
Poverty and the prevalence of infectious diseases have led to a revival in superstition. Ritual rape of young girls by their chief, or ‘cleansing death’ as it is described, is not uncommon in some tribal communities. And one young boy, Luka, suffered genital mutilation at the hands of neighbours who believed him possessed. Through her foundation, Madonna was able to arrange for surgery and a new home for Luka.
While it eloquently documents a global tragedy, I Am Because We Are is less convincing in prescribing remedies. It may be disheartening to see slum-dwelling fathers drinking away their meagre earnings, but there is something rather hypocritical in the tut-tutting of government officials who urge these people not to harbour a ‘victim mentality’.
The ‘modern farming techniques’ proposed by Dr Jeffrey Sachs and others seem to veer inexorably towards the advanced capitalism that is currently wreaking havoc in Western economies. Madonna notes that the Malawian people she meets have a ‘sense of community and extended family’ that has been largely eroded in countries like Britain and America.
I Am Because We Are derives its title from ‘Ubuntu’, a philosophy that is integral to African spirituality. Madonna has followed the teachings of the US-based Kabbalah Centre since the late 1990s. Spirituality For Kids (SFK), a Kabbalah inititiative, organizes workshops for children in Malawi and other countries, focusing on personal responsibility. Raising Malawi has worked closely with SFK.
Stylistically, I Am Because We Are is comparable to Madonna’s music documentaries, particularly I’m Going to Tell You a Secret (2005.) The footage at the beginning is grainy, and the captions are handwritten by Madonna. But in her use of both colour and monochrome, Madonna inverts her fomer aesthetic.
I’m Going to Tell You a Secret was largely made in black and white, bringing a sense of naturalism to a pop star’s glamorous life. Whereas the gruelling subject matter of I Am Because We Are is mostly rendered in vibrant colour, befitting ‘the warm heart of Africa’.
The soundtrack was composed by Madonna’s longtime collaborator, Patrick Leonard. An accompanying book of photos by Kristen Ashburn was published in 2009. I Am Because We Are won the VH1 Do Something Docu Style Award in 2010. Readers in the US can view the film for free on Youtube; it is also available internationally on DVD.
Since the release of I Am Because We Are, Madonna has adopted a second Malawian child, Chifundo ‘Mercy’ James. However, her plans to open a girls’ academy in Malawi floundered in 2011 after she discovered that some of her staff were embezzling funds.
Madonna moved quickly to fire those responsible and an investigation is ongoing. She hopes to continue her charity work in Malawi. Media criticism of Madonna’s ‘folly’ has been widespread. But whatever the ultimate fate of her project, I Am Because We Are remains an affecting testament to her sincerity, passion and love of children.