Madonna sued by charity workers over scrapped Malawi school

Raising Malawi's decision to drop plans for $15m elite academy for girls cost workers their jobs, claims lawyer

By David Smith

March 28, 2011 / The Guardian

Eight charity workers in Malawi are suing Madonna after the collapse of her $15m (£9.4m) academy for girls cost them their jobs. The employees' lawyer said they are taking the US singer to court for unfair dismissal and non-payment of benefits.

The board of Raising Malawi was ousted after failing to start the building of an elite girls' school amid allegations of financial mismanagement, including lavish spending on offices, cars and golf membership.

Madonna, who adopted a boy and a girl from the southern African country, loaned $11m (£6.9m) to the charity and now sits on the board. The charity workers' lawyer, Mzondi Chirambo, said the singer had 14 days to respond to their concerns.

"Their employment was terminated by the trustees of Raising Malawi Academy for Girls ostensibly following the change of plan not to build the school as planned," he told Reuters news agency. "My clients are also being forced to sign a discriminatory termination agreement before they are paid their benefits."

The papers were filed with Malawi's industrial court, which handles employment disputes. Madonna's US representative was not immediately available for comment, but there were reports that the singer is considering filing a counter-suit.

Chirambo said some of the workers he represented were directly connected to the school project, while others taught Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism of which Madonna, 52, is a devotee.

The group includes Dr Anjimile Oponyo, who had been recruited to head the school. An audit by the Global Philanthropy Group, brought in by Madonna to rescue the charity, reportedly said of Oponyo: "Her charisma masks a lack of substantive knowledge of the practical application of educational development, and her weak management skills are a major contributor to the current financial and programmatic chaos."

The school was to take 500 girls and prepare them as female leaders of the future. When news of its demise emerged two months ago, the Malawian government expressed concern and there was anger among villagers who sacrificed their homes to make way for the 47.4-hectare (117-acre) site near the capital, Lilongwe.

It was reported by the New York Times last week that $3.8m (£2.4m) had been spent on the abortive project. The charity's executive director, Philippe van den Bossche, the boyfriend of Madonna's former personal trainer, left in October amid criticism of his management style and cost overruns.


(The jucier version, with a more Average-Joe/Dad perspective)

Of course, The Daily Mail has it's own published version of the same story.  I prefer the more human-side of Maddona's tax-deductable act of charity/post-adoption experience:

All night parties. Hotel rooms rented for years to store her gym gear. What REALLY happened to the millions Madonna pledged to Malawi's children

By:  Andrew Malone

April 2, 2011/

Cycling home through the African night, his feet bare and wearing only ragged shorts and a grubby shirt, a crop farmer stops under the stars to give his views about the latest scandal involving Madonna, a woman whose lifestyle could hardly be further removed from his.

And yet his views are worth listening to, for this is Yohane Banda, the biological father of the Malawian boy adopted by the Material Girl when she decided to add ‘poverty-chic’ to the long list of fads she has followed in her 30-year career.

And in the darkness, Yohane, a pleasant, mild-mannered individual, gave me some news for Madonna: his son David, five — who now lives with the singer — is about to have a new half-brother or sister.

For Yohane had just returned from taking his new wife to a rural clinic to give birth. Yet he does not expect David or Madonna ever to see the child.

‘She took my son away for ever,’ says Yohane. ‘Madonna is only interested in herself.’

Yohane is not alone in feeling cheated.

Once dubbed Saint Madonna of Malawi, the American singer is now at the centre of an astonishing feud in the land to which David Livingstone, the British missionary, first brought Christianity almost 150 years ago.

It involves allegations of sexual shenanigans, millions of dollars squandered on parties and high-living and claims that Madonna was allowed to adopt her Malawian children — she also took on a girl called Mercy James, now five — on the basis of promises that are, so far, unfulfilled.

And at the centre of the scandal is the fact that the school Madonna promised to build here has been abandoned. Where it should have been standing, this week there was nothing but a dusty field.

To understand the background to this story — and the depth of anger of the local people — we must go back five years to when Madonna first came to Malawi.

While Dr Livingstone arrived on the shores of Lake Malawi at the end of a five-year African odyssey, Madonna did things rather differently — and more extravagantly.

Travelling by private jet and accompanied by her personal trainer, public relations men and high-powered lawyers, her appearance was described by local politicians as a ‘gift from heaven’.

Determined to adopt an African child, despite having her own two children from separate relationships, she toured orphanages in search of the perfect addition to her brood.

Announcing plans to set up schools, orphanages and medical centres, the singer pledged millions to the country.

And though all non-Malawians have to be resident for 18 months before adopting a child, Madonna duly left on her private jet with little David Banda, who had been temporarily placed in an orphanage after his mother died and his father was unable to provide milk for the baby (there is no bottle-feeding in the African bush).

At the same time, Madonna announced that she was setting up a charity called Raising Malawi, run through her Kabbalah religious centre in Los Angeles, which would build a school for orphaned girls.

What she was less keen to advertise was the fact that all local Malawians she employed would have to be instructed in Kabbalah.

Having offered such largesse, the law was waived a second time in 2009 when she adopted Mercy — a Malawian girl whose mother died in childbirth  and whose relatives’ claims on the child were dismissed.

Today, however, local feelings towards Madonna are much changed. It was announced this week that her school for girls was being scrapped, more than three years after work began and staff were hired to oversee the project.

In a statement issued by her office, the singer said: ‘There’s a real education crisis in Malawi. Our team is going to work hard to address this in every way. I’m frustrated that our education work has not moved forward in a faster way.’ At the same time, Madonna dismissed the entire board of directors of Raising Malawi, claiming that $3.8million (£2.4million) had been squandered without a brick being laid at the school outside Lilongwe, the country’s capital. (The singer reportedly donated $11 million of her own money to the charity.)

So what’s going on? Why are these orphaned children now being denied care after so much fanfare?

To find out, I travelled to Malawi — and discovered the truth is far more complex and disturbing than Madonna’s explanation.

My findings also unearthed allegations that her fascination with Africa has run into the sand — a fad to be cast aside when she lost interest.

Certainly, that’s the view of staff summarily fired by the pop star this week. All have been forced to sign gagging orders by her lawyers, promising that they will take to the grave any secrets they have about the singer and her operations.

But sources close to the staff refer to Madonna’s own wastefulness and extravagance, pointing out that they were forced to hire two rooms at the country’s most upmarket hotel for three years — simply to store the singer’s gym equipment in case she ever returned.

Branding Madonna ‘racist’ for implying that African corruption was to blame, they also point to the role of one of Madonna’s closest advisers, who oversaw Raising Malawi from his offices in Los Angeles.

He is Philippe van den Bossche, who was the executive director of Raising Malawi until he resigned from his post last autumn. He got the job with Madonna around the same time he was having an affair with Tracy Anderson, the singer’s personal trainer, who accompanied her on her six trips to Malawi.

According to sacked staff members, he spent money in a manner that would not have embarrassed an African dictator. Flying out first class to Malawi regularly, he took up residence in the same exclusive hotel where Madonna used to stay.

His parties became the stuff of legend. Thrown at least once a month, they involved more than 100 guests at a time being plied with vintage wines, rare malt whiskies and fine cognacs. The parties often lasted until dawn, with all bedrooms block-booked to prevent other guests prying.

At the same time, Madonna’s aide opened offices in the most prestigious office block in Lilongwe, furnishing the charity’s luxurious premises with African artefacts and offering his staff astonishing perks.

Each member of his eight-man executive team was supplied with annual membership at the capital’s exclusive golf club and leisure resort, costing thousands of pounds a year. They were also provided with luxury cars; indeed, two vehicles were assigned to staff that didn’t even exist.

Meanwhile, the charity’s local director, also something of a  party-lover — who is the sister of Malawi’s vice-president — was a prime beneficiary of these perks.

Anjimile Oponyo, who worked at the United Nations Development Programme in Africa before being appointed to run Madonna’s Malawi school project, was allowed virtually free rein financially — and wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds.

As well as paying a local journalist £1,000 a day to count how many times Madonna and Malawi were mentioned on the internet, Oponyo paid more than £100 a day for three years to hire luxury vehicles.

In a country where the average wage is less than ten pounds a week, she ignored pleas by other staff to take the cheaper option of buying a car, saying she wanted to be able to change her vehicle regularly, which paying by the day enabled her to do. Like her boss, she was also an enthusiastic party organiser, staging events at restaurants, the golf club, as well as countless bars and restaurants, for elite politicians and businessmen in the country.

Details of some of the allegations of lavish spending also emerged in a Global Philanthropy Group audit commissioned by Madonna. Now consulting her lawyers, along with the rest of the fired staff, Oponyo was this weekend in New York plotting her next move.

She, too, is banned from speaking publicly about her time with Madonna. But friends insist she had spent less than one million dollars in funds, using it for offices, vehicles and staff over the past three years. They say all her expenditure was passed by Madonna’s aides in Los Angeles.

And the sources close to Oponyo suggest that Madonna’s decision to scrap her plans for a girls’ academy in Malawi are not solely related to educational issues, but rather money.

‘After the initial fuss she created about Malawi, lots of money was raised,’ one source told me, speaking on condition of anonymity during a clandestine meeting in a Lilongwe restaurant.

‘Public donors and celebrities passed on money. That was enough for us to get started, get a staff and draw up plans for the building. But only £5 million was raised through Madonna’s charity for a project that was going to cost £11 million.’

A local journalist, who first broke the news in 2006 that Madonna was planning to adopt a local child, points out that all the perks for African staff were written into their contracts — but that large amounts were wasted flying in ‘experts’ from the U.S. to advise on the project.

And now the lawsuits are piling up. With her Malawian staff suing for unfair dismissal and local politicians in uproar about what they see as Madonna’s broken promises, the singer is threatening her own legal action to recover some of the money wasted so far.

At the same time, the pop star’s beloved Kabbalah Centre headquarters in Los Angeles, which she helps fund — and uses to distribute her fortune to charity projects such as Raising Malawi — is being sued for £15 million by a wealthy heiress, who claims she was duped into donating money to its coffers.

Courtenay Geddes, who inherited billions from her industrialist father, claims in a lawsuit that ‘while looking for spiritual enlightenment, personal growth and improvement, she was manipulated by the Kabbalah Centre, which took advantage of her sincere, trusting nature to deprive her of her monies’.

The legal document adds: ‘The Kabbalah Centre has a historical pattern and practice of defrauding people by soliciting monies for various projects that never come to fruition. Geddes is but one of numerous people who have been taken advantage of.’

This week the singer issued a statement which said: ‘I remain deeply committed to helping the children of Malawi ... and I realise that the plans we had in place for the Raising Malawi Academy for Girls simply would not serve enough children.

‘My original vision is now on a much bigger scale. I want to reach thousands not hundreds of girls. I want to do more and I want to do it better.

‘While I am grateful to all the people who have given me guidance and support up until now, we are in the process of implementing several changes and additions to the management of Raising Malawi in the U.S. and Malawi.’ 

She continued: ‘This is a larger challenge than I thought, but I welcome it. We are currently determining the size, location, staffing and curriculum of the schools. I will continue to monitor the process of reaching these goals here and through my ongoing visits to Malawi.’

Certainly, she’s raised awareness of poverty in Malawi, with many aid projects set up to help children as a result.

While the millionaire singer continues to insist she is involved in Malawi — she still funds other projects for children there — perhaps the last word in this tawdry dispute should go to Yohane Banda, standing beside his rusty bike on a dirt track in the African bush.

‘I hoped my boy would be given an education and then given back to me,’ he said.

‘He may be better off for money with Madonna, but he should be with his family.

‘I’d just like my son back to live with the new baby coming. I’m the only one not to get any cash. But money isn’t everything.

‘Perhaps this rich lady should learn that.’

He sums it up

He sums it up perfectly:

‘She took my son away for ever,’ says Yohane. ‘Madonna is only interested in herself.’

The gift of a celebrity's charity (and ignorance)

Here's the kicker...

In order for adoption laws to be tweaked, and worked in HER favor, she had to make a small donation.  Small, being relative to the size of her net-worth.

When people donate to a NGO/non-profit, what they are essentially doing is paying for cost of materials, cost of paid salaries, with whatever left-overs going to those who still want/need.

Without volunteers, these NGOs cannot exist as they do.

So.... the great white hope offers a religious-affiliated school, for the "orphan girls", so they can be educated and maybe become independent one day.

The idea itself is quite good.  Why it's much like the plan Oprah had when she started her school a few years ago, which also had a very rocky beginning.

I'm highly suspect of long-distance philanthropic ventures. 

Celebrities are especially "vulnerable" to the woes of charity.

I remember when Oprah opened her Leadership Academy in S. Africa -- the hopes and intentions were so good...

Millions of dollars went into this project.

In two years, two major sex-scandals broke-out. The first took place just ten months after the first pupils were admitted.  Fifteen girls claimed a matron employed by the establishment sexually abused them. Virginia Tiny Makgobo faced 13 charges, including indecent assault, common assault, assaulting a minor to perform an indecent act and verbal abuse of pupils. She was acquitted, much to Oprah's disappointment.

[From:  comment, Over-seas interest in orphans ]

Unfortunately, this method-to-help the underprivileged is nothing new.

If you peruse our History of Child Placement section, (in particular, the Child Migration section), you will see how others used the building of schools as the lure to better street-kids and other orphans in society.

The dates may change, but the actions of others remain the same.

This is how bad history keeps repeating itself.

Do they all think this?

Yohane Banda stated:

‘I hoped my boy would be given an education and then given back to me,’ he said.

‘He may be better off for money with Madonna, but he should be with his family.

‘I’d just like my son back to live with the new baby coming. I’m the only one not to get any cash. But money isn’t everything.

‘Perhaps this rich lady should learn that.’


I'm here to be honest.  I heard these same words from the mother of my second son, whom I had kept contact with for the first 7 years of his life.  I had sent her money, which the missionaries took.  I had sent pictures and letters, plus phone calls to Guatemala.  And then, she sent me a letter that stated: "I pray to God that He will give me back my son."  I have to admit that this was a shock to me, at the time; now, it seems like there is a world full of first-families who went into adoption thinking their child would some day be returned to them. 

My son's mother was pregnant with her second child when I went to Guatemala to pick up her first child (he was 2 months old) to be my son.  I truly believe that there is such a cultural difference between America and EVERY OTHER NATION in the world, that WE think we are implying one thing, and THEY are interpreting it a totally different way. 

She accused me of not following through on promises... I had sent the money for her to buy land and build a concrete block, one room home for her and her baby daughter.  Her parents and the missionaries took that money.  I sent pictures and clothes and letters; but come to find out she didn't get the clothes because her parents thought them to be "not proper."  After seeing that I could never live up to what this family thought I was going to do, we parted ways.  She moved to California and left her baby daughter for her sister to raise.

Does anyone else see that the cultural differences in America and the sending countries make it easier for adoptions to go wrong?


Yes Teddy! Add to that the

Yes Teddy! Add to that the culture of colonialism that still persists in Guatemala and you have the perfect recipe for adoptions to go wrong. Keep in mind that many children placed in larger orphanages are placed there so that the family can work and the child to be fed and educated, not for the intention of adoption. The families visit the children ever so often when they can and on holiday take them out to be with the family. This IS the reality of many children in Guatemala, they were never intended for adoption.

Many families were coersed and told that the "foreign family" would care for them, with no mention of permancency nor severing ties. Mind you, the majority of the women who "signed" the documents could not read nor write, many have finger print inked on documents while others managed to write their names only, but cannot read on the level needed to read the documents. It is widely known in Guatemala that indigenous families do not relinquish children, it is taboo in fact to give up a child. If you look at your documents in Spanish from PGN, the adoptive family is known and "the foster family". Hint hint.


Teddy, what you wrote.... <deep heavy sigh>

My son's mother was pregnant with her second child when I went to Guatemala to pick up her first child (he was 2 months old) to be my son.  I truly believe that there is such a cultural difference between America and EVERY OTHER NATION in the world, that WE think we are implying one thing, and THEY are interpreting it a totally different way. 

Re-visit the video/article "Fly Away Children".  Read. Watch the mothers, and the evangelists.  Watch and see the international adoption industry, and remember how children sent to America are treated by doctors and para-professionals.  [Attachment Therapy, anyone?  <pouring a tall stiff glass of kool-aid> ]

Maybe the mothers won't want their adult children returned.... not after all America did to the kids.

This is why I stopped my own search and reunion.  I didn't want to burden my Bmom with the shit "gifted" me, through a foreign adoption.  I didn't want my Bmom to know much about my Amom.  Why hurt her like that?  As Kerry,  (not my birth-name, chosen for me), I am free to expose bits and pieces of an adoption-story so a woman named Blanche out-there (if she's still alive) won't have a clue what was had, and what got lost.... through ICA.

But I know.  And PPL is how we show others the world needs a better adoption system.

The good/sad thing?  America is a great country, when the people pull together.

Pound Pup Legacy