Meet the Neo-Colonialists: Madonna and Vanity Fair

by Latoya Peterson

Latoya’s Note: If you have a good grasp of world trade, the issues on the African Continent, and media bias as it relates to first world nations, read this article as it is presented. If you are unfamiliar with any of these concepts, please scroll down to where I say “Part of the solution is asking the right questions.” That section will explain why I take offense to a lot of the seemingly innocuous parts of the text.

In the last month, I’ve spent about 8 hours of my life stuck under a hair dryer. Imprisoned under this evil little bonnet hood, my only escape and sanctuary are the magazines stocked by the salon. I’ve perused countless copies of W, Everyday with Rachel Ray, and Allure – magazines I would not pick up on my own, but quickly become interesting reading once I run out of other material.

A couple of weeks ago I had run through all those and decided to turn to Vanity Fair. It’s heft appealed to me, as did the long form articles. I skipped past a lot of the front of the book pieces, thoroughly enjoyed an investigative article on how the Monsanto corporation is locking down the global seed market, and stopped at the cover profile on Madonna.

The photos pulled me in, with their stark, bare treatment of Madonna’s form juxtaposed against steel which reminded me of Atlas Shrugged.

I read the opening paragraph:

The world is a series of rooms, which are arranged like concentric circles, or rooms within rooms, joined by courtyards and antechambers, and in the room at the center of all those rooms Madonna sits alone, in a white dress, dreaming of Africa.

Oh hell no.

Remember that old Margaret Cho joke, where she says if you’re Asian-American and you’re watching TV, and you hear that “wa-na-na-na-na-na na-na-na GONG!” sound you know you’re fucked?

I get that same feeling when an article describes a white person dreaming about Africa.

Especially if they aren’t fondly reminiscing over their childhood spent overseas.

But who knows? I could be wrong, right? I continued reading.

To reach her, you must wait for a sign. When it comes, if you are pure of heart, you begin to move toward Madonna, and move fast. One moment you are in Connecticut, wondering if it will snow, the next moment you are swept up by a force greater than yourself. You’re in a car on the highway, flashing past sleepy towns, moving closer and closer to the center, which you approach deftly and humbly, in the manner of a pilgrim. Like a pilgrim, you set off before first light. Like a pilgrim, you remove your shoes—to pass through security at the airport. Like a pilgrim, you read and reread sacred texts: profiles and reviews, the first published in the early 1980s, the most recent published just a second ago, which constitute a kind of record, the good news, the Gospel of Madonna.

Okay, so we’re taking a religious tone to the whole affair. Fine.

The author continues to describe the major milestones in Madonna’s career, criticism, and her continued reinvention. Then, the piece shifts to describe her Madgesty’s newest project:

The lights went down, and for 90 minutes I watched a documentary Madonna has written and produced, I Am Because We Are, which is African folk wisdom that means something like “It takes a village.” It too is about community—about identity and how it’s rooted in place. The movie sings of Malawi, a landlocked little nation in sub-Saharan Africa, ravaged by aids, filled with orphans—a world without adults that has become, in her middle years, the great cause of Madonna’s life. With this movie, it seems, she hopes not only to raise awareness but also to explain her own obsession with the motherless children of Africa.

Okay, I’m with you.

It opens with Madonna walking in a crowd of Africans.

Ick. Okay, I have a problem with people conflating certain countries with Africa as a whole, but as a broad descriptor, I guess it will stand.

Then her voice, which is the voice of the upper Midwest painted in Oxford glaze: “People always ask me why I chose Malawi. And I tell them, I didn’t. It chose me. I got a phone call from a woman named Victoria Keelan. She was born and raised in Malawi. She told me that there were over one million children orphaned by aids. She said there weren’t enough orphanages. And that the children were everywhere. Living on the streets. Sleeping under bridges. Hiding in abandoned buildings. Being abducted, kidnapped, raped. She said it was a state of emergency. She sounded exhausted and on the verge of tears. I asked her how I could help. She said, You’re a person with resources. People pay attention to what you say and do. I felt embarrassed. I told her I didn’t know where Malawi was. She told me to look it up on a map, and then she hung up on me. I decided to investigate, and I ended up finding out much more than I bargained for, about Malawi, about myself, about humanity.”

Interesting backstory to the film. I can understand receiving a call with a plight so great you feel compelled to help. I am a little less fond of the next bit:

If anyone ever won a lottery, it’s this child, David, who one moment was living in poverty in Africa and the next had been flown to a palace in the great frozen North. You see him in the film, bowlegged and stocky in the endearing way of the destitute man-child, looking adult, wizened.

Okay, I get it. Tragedy, poverty, redemption.

It was this adoption—the fact that Madonna went into an orphanage of aids-infected children and somehow came out with a child who did not have aids and is not an orphan—that set off the furor, especially in the British press, that the movie seems meant to address. Laws had been brushed aside, the request expedited. As if the dynamic of colonialism or First World/Third World were being played out between this one superstar and this one child.

Now I am wondering how she managed that. Good call on the dynamic of the First World/Third World, though I am a little wary of painting the First World with a savior brush. (More on that in a minute.)

Then David’s father, Yohane Banda, turned up. He told reporters he had placed his son in the orphanage only temporarily, and let him be adopted at the urging of authorities. “The government people told me it would be a good thing for the country,” he told The Christian Science Monitor. “They said he would come back educated and be able to help us.”

Hmm…okay. Starting to get that sinking feeling, but everything is technically correct. David will most likely have a better shot living with Madonna than staying in Malawi.

What a strange life for David, being carried off to London—like Pocahontas, the beautiful Indian girl found in wild America—because, as Conrad wrote of London, “this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” Like Pocahontas, who marveled at the brick buildings and endless streets and was shown off and fêted, but still lonely, because the Empire has everything but what is most important—a kind of purity or righteous connection to the land.

Yes, they did just compare him to Pocahontas.

Yes, they did say “Wild America.”

Yes, they are playing into that whole “poor noble savage” shit with language.

The condescension goes deeper:

“Africa is not doing great,” Madonna told me, “but, on the other hand, how much have they contributed to the destruction of the world? Nothing compared to what we have, and we have everything.” In other words, Madonna brings this boy into her house and gives him everything, but gets something in return: a living totem of life as it was lived before machines.

Oh, how big of you all to remind us that the modern world is not all shine and gleaming gold.

Wait, it gets better:

When I began to ask Madonna about Britney—specifically in relation to the paparazzi—she stopped me (before I even said Britney’s name) with a raised hand, saying, “Yes, I know. I know exactly what you’re going to say. It’s very painful. Which leads us back to our question: When you think about the way people treat each other in Africa, about witchcraft and people inflicting cruelty and pain on each other, then come back here and, you know, people taking pictures of people when they’re in their homes, being taken to hospitals, or suffering, and selling them, getting energy from them, that’s a terrible infliction of cruelty. So who’s worse off? You know what I mean?”

Because she’s obviously been to all 53 countries, despite only mentioning Malawi.

And because obviously, all people in Africa practice Witchcraft. I guess someone needs to contact Wikipedia:

    Different Africans profess a wide variety of religious beliefs[46] and it is difficult to conclude accurate statistics about religious demography in Africa as a whole. Estimations from World Book Encyclopedia claim that there are 150 million African Muslims and 130 million African Christians, while Encyclopedia Britannica estimates that approximately 46.5% of all Africans are Christians and another 40.5% are Muslims with roughly 11.8% of Africans following indigenous African religions. A small number of Africans are Hindu or Baha’i, or have beliefs from the Judaic tradition. Examples of African Jews are the Beta Israel, Lemba peoples and the Abayudaya of Eastern Uganda.

African Muslims and Christians? Oh no, that’s way too normal, better to talk about that old time tribal religion from quaint, backwards lands.

The piece goes on to discuss Madonna’s current projects, influences for her new album, and ideas for the future. Her last thought on Africa is:

Madonna spoke of Africa: “If you’ve got one iota of compassion, you can’t ignore what’s going on. You have to figure out a way to be a part of the solution.”

Interesting that she should say that.

One has to be part of the solution, right?

Part of the solution is asking the right questions.

So here is my main problem with the article – it never answers the logical follow up questions to the statements presented. The two largest ones are never even engaged.

Why, exactly, is Malawi poor and unable to provide for its children?

And why, exactly, are so many people dying of AIDS to leave over a million child orphans?

Care to guess?

I found this article fascinating as it demonstrates the assumptions made by the Western world when reporting on issues in developing nations. Oftentimes we do not ask the bigger questions and we do not ever hear the full answer.

For example, take the first question. Remember back when I created the Activist Resolutions and pledged to stop talking about Africa as if it were a country and not a continent? And how about a month after that, I stumbled across that New York Times article on how the IMF fucks over African nations? Let’s revisit that for a second.

The New York Times article comes with a provocative headline: “Ending Famine By Ignoring the Experts.”

    Malawi hovered for years at the brink of famine. After a disastrous corn harvest in 2005, almost five million of its 13 million people needed emergency food aid.

    But this year, a nation that has perennially extended a begging bowl to the world is instead feeding its hungry neighbors. It is selling more corn to the World Food Program of the United Nations than any other country in southern Africa and is exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of corn to Zimbabwe.

    In Malawi itself, the prevalence of acute child hunger has fallen sharply. In October, the United Nations Children’s Fund sent three tons of powdered milk, stockpiled here to treat severely malnourished children, to Uganda instead. “We will not be able to use it!” Juan Ortiz-Iruri, Unicef’s deputy representative in Malawi, said jubilantly.

    Farmers explain Malawi’s extraordinary turnaround — one with broad implications for hunger-fighting methods across Africa — with one word: fertilizer.

    Over the past 20 years, the World Bank and some rich nations Malawi depends on for aid have periodically pressed this small, landlocked country to adhere to free market policies and cut back or eliminate fertilizer subsidies, even as the United States and Europe extensively subsidized their own farmers. But after the 2005 harvest, the worst in a decade, Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s newly elected president, decided to follow what the West practiced, not what it preached.

Keep going:

The quick and dirty explanation is this: each of these organizations purports to assist developing nations improve their global standing by lending money (the IMF), attempting to reduce poverty (the World Bank) and governing the rules of international trade (the WTO).

    The country’s successful use of subsidies is contributing to a broader reappraisal of the crucial role of agriculture in alleviating poverty in Africa and the pivotal importance of public investments in the basics of a farm economy: fertilizer, improved seed, farmer education, credit and agricultural research.

    Malawi, an overwhelmingly rural nation about the size of Pennsylvania, is an extreme example of what happens when those things are missing. As its population has grown and inherited landholdings have shrunk, impoverished farmers have planted every inch of ground. Desperate to feed their families, they could not afford to let their land lie fallow or to fertilize it. Over time, their depleted plots yielded less food and the farmers fell deeper into poverty.

    Malawi’s leaders have long favored fertilizer subsidies, but they reluctantly acceded to donor prescriptions, often shaped by foreign-aid fashions in Washington, that featured a faith in private markets and an antipathy to government intervention.

These expert organizations continued to misdiagnose the problems of Malawi until their leader finally decided to break from tradition and try something radically different – to do what the country required, rather than what free-market theorists wanted. The result? Increased self-sufficence! Go Malawai!

    The harvest also helped the poor by lowering food prices and increasing wages for farm workers. Researchers at Imperial College London and Michigan State University concluded in their preliminary report that a well-run subsidy program in a sensibly managed economy “has the potential to drive growth forward out of the poverty trap in which many Malawians and the Malawian economy are currently caught.”

Progress! So, what did the US say?

    The United States, which has shipped $147 million worth of American food to Malawi as emergency relief since 2002, but only $53 million to help Malawi grow its own food, has not provided any financial support for the subsidy program, except for helping pay for the evaluation of it. Over the years, the United States Agency for International Development has focused on promoting the role of the private sector in delivering fertilizer and seed, and saw subsidies as undermining that effort.

    But Alan Eastham, the American ambassador to Malawi, said in a recent interview that the subsidy program had worked “pretty well,” though it displaced some commercial fertilizer sales.

Why is the global food crisis so severe?

Why are so many African nations starving and in debt?

Could it be that donor organizations that were supposed to lend them money to develop their countries actually prescribe horrible advice that takes the emphasis away from self-sustaining agriculture and directs money toward purchasing food from other countries? And could it be that this forced reliance on other nations for food has created a cycle of debt and payment with other nations without providing for a way out? And could it be that many of the nations involved are either not able to turn down the billions of dollars in development funds it would lose by defying the experts? Or that some countries have leaders who have no interest in what is best for their people, but would rather just keep collecting the development dollars and let their people starve? Hmmm…

Back to the second question – why are there so many orphans from AIDS?

Now, I don’t have the hard hitting evidence that I did above with Malawi. I do have some vague connections though that may play a hand in the spread of AIDS in Africa – the global gag rule, the reduction of foreign family planning services abroad, and awarding government funds to faith-based programs which may or may not promote abstinence only education in their foreign service work.

So, in light of that information, what is the way to a solution?

It is nice to see a celebrity raising awareness about a cause, but wouldn’t that time be better spent lobbying the IMF/World Bank/WTO to change their policies toward African nations? Or lobbying congress to lift the global gag rule.

One of the main problems, from where I sit, is the general reluctance of people in the media to challenge their bias in reference to developing nations. This is why we have reporting on horrible catastrophes and the darker side of the human condition without any explanation of why or how these things happened. How does a country have a food crisis that spans ten years? How do we explain that? We do we gloss over key information like the role of the IMF/WTO/World Bank in the global economy?

It is because we like to think that America always plays fair.

It is because we like to think people are poor because of actions they took, not because of the circumstances that they were dealt.

Because we would rather flick through a magazine and order a bracelet to end poverty instead of critically analyzing why some problems never seem to get solved.

And people like Madonna, and this reporter for Vanity Fair, seem to buy into this idea, that Africa is a dark continent begging for a savior, never realizing that our governments directly contribute to their plight.

But at the end of the day, who cares? After all, the article isn’t about Malawi. It’s about Madonna.

And she’s got an album to sell.