x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Madonna's Malawi school project stalled over corruption claims

The abandoned site looks more like a quarried mine than a pop superstar's multimillion-dollar dream to groom girls into Malawi's next leaders and doctors.

Madonna laid the foundation stone for the Raising Malawi Academy for Girls in April last year.
Madonna laid the foundation stone for the Raising Malawi Academy for Girls in April last year.

CHINKHOTA, MALAWI // The abandoned site looks more like a quarried mine than a pop superstar's multimillion-dollar dream to groom girls into Malawi's next leaders and doctors.

But the bleak, levelled terraces of gravelly sand in this village near near Malawi's capital are the only evidence of Madonna's US$15 million (Dh55m) academy that has been abandoned for now because it appears millions of dollars were misspent.

The bulldozers are long silent where Madonna - who adopted two children from Malawi - laid a foundation stone engraved "dare to dream" in April last year.

One year later, the school had been called off. The star is being sued by employees who were fired, her charity is tied up in a US tax investigation, and Malawi is investigating how the land was paid for.

"Initially although I welcomed [it], personally I was very sceptical about the whole thing," said Paul Kalilombe, the Lilongwe district commissioner.

"There was just too much publicity before there was any work on the ground."

Madonna's charities did not reply to queries. In January, she said the academy project was off in favour of helping existing schools in the country. But The New York Times then reported that an audit, ordered by Madonna, found $3.8m squandered on the discarded academy.

The audit reportedly found a "startling lack of accountability" on the management team in Malawi and the United States.

The star's last word was in April when she said a new strategy would be announced in coming weeks.

Unhappiness here began with payments to villagers for the land, which Madonna's charity, Raising Malawi, paid through the government.

"It would appear that maybe there were some ghost villagers. Within the list of recipients there are some people who were inserted maybe by some officers who are involved in the practice," Mr Kalilombe said.

"But it is a matter that is being investigated by the fiscal police in Malawi."

But in Chinkhota, an explanation had yet to reach the villagers, who have had to swallow a doubly bitter pill with their former fields ruined and not a classroom in sight.

"People were just surprised that there is no activity and wondering what is happening," said Tsiyent Foroyati, 52, sitting in the yard of her home.

As the biggest landowner around the school's site, Ms Foroyati was paid 39,000 kwacha ($258 Dh965) in compensation but had wanted three million kwacha.

For the school, Madonna should have worked with an existing organisation that knows "what is actually happening on the ground", said Mr Kalilombe, who believes an orphanage is planned for the academy site.

"The idea was good. She had good intentions, but now to implement it on the ground, that brought a lot of complications."

* Agence France-Presse