Saving Malawi’s Children
Madonna first visited Malawi in April 2006. She’s been there twice since, including a trip last October to adopt her son, David, who was then suffering from malaria and pneumonia. Through her Raising Malawi organization, Madonna is helping to foster sustainable solutions for the Malawian people, especially its most defenseless children. She’s also working on a documentary about the orphans of Malawi.
Below are excerpts from her conversation with Dr. Jim Yong Kim, a founder of Partners in Health, which provides medical care and social services to the world’s poorest patients. Dr. Kim is currently based at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University. He works to bring good medicine to people without access; his campaigns have helped increase aids treatment in Africa eightfold.
Madonna: A lot of people ask me, “Why did you choose Malawi?” I always say that Malawi chose me. Victoria Keelan, a businesswoman who was born and raised in Malawi, contacted me through a mutual friend and said, “Look, if you’re in the business of helping children, we have over a million orphans here in Malawi, and the problem is insane. It’s an emergency. They need your help.” She reached out to me because I do a lot of fund-raising for an organization called Spirituality for Kids, which helps children in impoverished conditions everywhere in the world, whether it’s Palestine, or East L.A., or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or the Bronx, Miami, Mexico Cityall over the place.
I must admit that I didn’t really know where Malawi was when I first heard about the situation there. I had certainly heard about the aids pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa, and in more well-known countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda. But not Malawi. So I educated myself, and I couldn’t say no, and it just seemed like a good idea. I sort of dove in.
Dr. Kim: When was your first trip?
Madonna: A year ago April. I’ve only been there three times, but so much has happened in a year. I’m thrilled because, as you know, it takes a lot of time and a lot of work to get things done. It was great to go back and see so many things manifested. But once you start turning over rocks and reaching out to help people, there’s a whole avalanche coming right behind it. And it seems never-ending. But when you see the fruits of your labor, you feel like it’s possible.
Dr. Kim: One of the things we’ve learned is that you’ve got to take lots of joy out of small victories. That’s what keeps you going.
Madonna: Yes, and you have to stop fixating on things, too. I found myself getting really angry when I went into [the slums] and was visiting families or single people living with aids who we’re supposed to be helping with home-based care. I would talk to people through translators and find out that they were getting all the wrong medication. That drove me bonkers, and I almost ripped my hair out. Those little things get me down, but then you realize there are all these other great things happening: the Millennium Villages have surplus crops, and orphan-care centers are being built. So you have to focus on the things that are getting done.
There are some kids you can help by building orphan-care centers they can visit during the day. It’s a place to go, and there’s food; they can have their health needs taken care of, and they can get an education. And then they can go home and sleep with their extended family. There are other orphans who are in such dire straitsthey’re living on the streets, and you need to find foster homes for them, or you need to send them to private schools. And some kids just need psychosocial support to deal with the fact that they’re living with their extended family. But no one’s addressing what it feels like to lose your parents, and what’s going on in the heads and hearts of these kids. If they’re the future of the country, then we need to do something about it.
I know that you’re dealing with everything from alcoholism to orphans. There are just so many issues that need to be dealt with to raise up the level of someone’s existence.
Dr. Kim: You mentioned alcoholism. We deal with that a lot in Russiait happens to be one of the biggest complications in treating TB there. We’re doing a lot of research on alcoholism and TB.
Madonna: I think there’s very little difference between Moscow and Africa in some respects. Have you heard about the orphanages there?
Dr. Kim: Oh, God. They’re just terrible.
Madonna: It’s way more depressing in a way.
Dr. Kim: When I was at W.H.O. [the World Health Organization], the director general had been to every single depressing place in the world. And the one place that just ripped his heart out was an aids orphanage in Moscow. It was the most emotionally troubling place he’d ever been to. He started a fund-raising campaignhe sold all the gifts that had been given to him by all these different presidents. He put all the money into a Russian orphanage.
Madonna: Oh, well, God bless him.
Dr. Kim: Orphanages in general, Madonna, I have to tell you “