Is Madonna a good role model for Malawi's children?

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After a long absence from the country Madonna, was suddenly appointed as goodwill Ambassador for Child Welfare in Malawi. Madonna, who has two adopted children from Malawi was given the role on position on November 28th, 2014 in recognition for the work she is doing with Malawian children through her charity, “Raising Malawi”.

Three days later, nude photos of her were posted online from a photo shoot she did with Interview Magazine. These series of events prompted me to wonder if Madonna was a suitable child welfare ambassador for the country.

My argument however, is not to join the traditional hoopla from anti or pro Madonna camps by debating over her “edginess” or her right to bear breasts. Madonna’s nudity does not offend me.

However, her continuous dismissiveness of the country, its laws and its culture does. Given that she is now a Goodwill Ambassador for Malawi, some deeper reflection was needed in her decision making.

Simply stated, a Goodwill Ambassador for any country’s children should exercise some sense of discretion over actions that may not be deemed to be appropriate for children.

Madonna of course, is not new to the nude photo scene. She has been one of the celebrities that pushed the envelope when it comes to nude photos. The earliest nude photos of her from where taken in 1977 by Herman Kulkens when she was eighteen.

Thereafter, nude photos of her appeared in 1985 in both Playboy and Penthouse. In the 1990s she had several nude photos appear in magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue. She also appeared nude in a few of her movies and on the catwalk.

The Interview photos are the latest since publishing photos earlier this year for an Italian magazine. Therefore, given her long history of posing for nude photos, the act of her taking photos is not shocking behavior for her in her capacity as a celebrity – and an edgy one at that.

However, she is now also a ‘Goodwill Ambassador’ which means that she is also assuming a position that requires a little more introspection when it comes to how she wants to represent herself – or the country.

The Role of Goodwill Ambassadors:

Goodwill Ambassadors have special roles to play when representing a country. Collins dictionary describes a Goodwill Ambassador simply as an Ambassador who “shows goodwill to another country, organization, etc, on behalf of his or her own country, organization, etc”.

If we use this definition, Madonna can arguably be said to be excelling in her role. However, if we hold her to international standards and wider expectations that come with such a prestigious position, she falls short.

In international organizations such as the United Nations as an example, define their own goodwill Ambassadors as prominent individuals who highlight specific issues of a country and draw attention to its activities.

The UN’s Goodwill Ambassadors have included people like Angelina Jolie, Oliver Mtukudzi, Victoria Beckham and Emma Watson. The UN also has set guidelines regarding the selection of such Ambassadors and their personal activities do make a difference to them.

A UN goodwill Ambassador needs to have the, “personality and dignity required for such high level representative capacity”; the ability to promote the values of the organization; and be knowledgeable about the organization’s goals and activities.

If held by these standards, Madonna is clearly not the best candidate for a Goodwill Ambassador position. Whilst I can’t find fault with her personality, there is much we can say about her “dignity”. No, it’s not about the decision to take “artistic” nude photos but rather her decision to take them in light of her position as a good will Ambassador for a nation’s children.

Malawi’s children, like other children are impressionable therefore the actions of a role models like celebrities impact them. The message that young Malawian girls and boys get when they search for her online and find nude photos is that the female body is the object of desire or that a girl’s sexuality is more important than her talent.

As minors, they do not have the tools yet, to debate on the whether her nudity is “empowering” for girls or whether it’s simply an artistic expression. That’s not the conversation they are having. The likely message that they will get is that taking nude photos is acceptable.

This, being problematic in a country that does not have adequate resources to fend of sex offenders or human traffickers who exploit children and encourage them to engage in early childhood sexual activity for money. If Madonna takes off her clothes yes, some can argue that it is “liberating” for her. However, if young Malawian girls start believing it’s alright to do so, it opens them up to exploitation.

Madonna cannot promote the values of the country or its children because she doesn’t fully understand them. Malawi is one of the more conservative and religious countries in Africa. Women could not legally wear pants or skirts above their knees until 1994.

In some parts of the country, people are still offended by women wearing clothing that is too revealing and young girls are taught to dress conservatively. Therefore, their participation in any activity that is salacious, whether it be wearing miniskirts, taking nude photography or being a stripper is generally looked down upon.

The father of Mercy, one of her adopted children, did in fact complain that he felt Madonna led a lifestyle not fit for raising children. There has been a misunderstanding of Malawi’s culture and how ordinary Malawians perceive such acts. Clearly her participation in the nude photo shoot means that she is not considering the conservative cultural ‘values’ of the nation or she doesn’t care.

Another consideration to be noted though, is that perhaps it is just exemplary of a person with myopic knowledge of the country which she has demonstrated in the past. When she adopted the children, she openly stated that Malawi, had “no adoption laws” which was inaccurate. Malawi does have international adoption laws and her legal team circumvented them through a constitutional technicality.

Madonna was either truly wallowing in ignorance and believed this which is almost forgivable or she was just evoking popular stereotypes of the “lawless” African nation for the Western media who’s coverage of Africa is typically limited to sound bites and superficial coverage. Nevertheless, the motivation behind such statements needs to be questioned.

Madonna’s Involvement in Malawi

The motivation behind her involvement in Malawi is questionable and is always changing. It is unclear if her initial visit there was just another Public Relation stunt or if she just wanted to find a way to build a legacy outside of her music career – Angela Jolie style. Of course, we cannot ignore the possibility that she went in with good intentions, after all adopting children is a long term commitment even if they will be raised by nannies. However, if this is the case, she needs to approach her involvement with Malawi’s children in more thoughtful way.

Perhaps her entire interaction with Malawi speaks to someone who was just in over her head. Her “charity” work in Malawi has been problematic from the start. They moved villagers to build the initial school, some went with a fight but others were supportive and pledged their own time and resources to help build the school. The star raised millions of dollars for the school yet, the majority of the funds never reached Malawi’s shores.

When news started leaking that there were some management problems with the charity, instead of hiring a forensic accountant or auditor to investigate, she hired a Public Relations team. This team has since been distorting the facts surrounding her charity work there.

This includes scapegoating Malawian managers by evoking popular stereotypes of the “corrupt” and greedy African managers to the media. In the meanwhile, the Kabblah center was being investigated on tax fraud in the U.S. because of their charity work – NGOs are a good way to evade taxes for U.S. organizations.

Then when the “schools” were finally built, she then understated the number and nature of schools built. A few schools blocks at existing schools were passed off as entire schools built by her PR team. It gave her the right to proclaim that she had saved the minds of Malawian children.

Grant it, some schools are better than no schools and Madonna is not obligated to Malawi. However, African nations such as Malawi need to be more cognizant of the exploitive nature of charity work by celebrities and NGOs. Not all charity work is good for us and the lack of transparency by do-gooders should be discouraged.

We cannot have charities making money under the premise of helping children. The children are the ones that suffer. To date, no plausible explanation of where the money went has been offered. This means that some funds that were designated for children by well-meaning people will never get to the children who it was intended for. If Madonna’s interest is with Malawi’s children, she can do a much better job of removing the web of secrecy surrounding the center.

Madonna’s appointment is not just about the material girl herself, much needs to be said about the Malawian selection committee that vetted her and approved her for the role.

One hopes that this was not just an appeasement appointment to ‘undo’ what the previous President Joyce Banda had done. Although some question the motivation behind Banda’s stripping her of her VVIP status (her sister, Dr. Aponyo was one of the school managers) it doesn’t excuse Madonna’s ill treatment of Malawi nor the lack of transparency by her charity.

We could have just restored her VVIP status but offering the Ambassadorship was not necessary. Madonna of course, has never been hiding behind walls about who she is and what she does.

So it’s not so simple to blame her for being herself – Malawi knew who Madonna was and Madonna is what Malawi got. There are other people who could have fulfilled this role. Malawi’s own CNN hero Marie Da Silva or Hollywood actress Ricki Lake come quickly to mind. Madonna should not have been in the running unless it was for an Ambassadorship that did not involve the nation’s children.

Sitinga is a scholar in Sociology and African Studies. Topics of interest include socio-economic development, nation-branding, tourism, image, identity, and the global political economy and of course, Africa!She has worked worked in non-profit, healthcare, development, and education organizations. She is on the board of the Malawi Washington Association and Southern African Community USA. She has lived in Malawi and South Africa and currently lives in the US but you can catch her online, blogging at and

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