It was Uli Knopflmacher, at that magical NEH seminar I attended so long ago, who called this Garth William’s illustration from the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web, “Madonna and Pig.” When pointing this out to my fourth graders, I always need to say that it has nothing to do with the singer Madonna, celebrated children’s book author and Malawi Orphan Adopter.
But today’s post does.
What troubles me about Madonna’s adoption is what troubles me about so many of the wealthy and well-known do-gooders who drop in various parts of Africa with their media entourages in tow, start their own NGOs because they think they know and can do better, and offer sound bites of Africa that don’t do much to expand people’s understanding of the continent. Yes, they mean well. So many do.
I have this outlying point of view because I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, a country on the opposite side of the African continent from Malawi, but one that is most likely perceived by many as very similar — a desperately poor country that needs all the help it can get.
For many years I stayed pretty quiet about my experience. People were not interested and had such simplistic responses that I learned to say nothing. Until the war. It went on for years without American media paying much attention to it. Only when they got wind of the atrocities, when the capital Freetown (where I had lived for two years) was invaded, when child soldiers became an issue, finally the media paid attention. Finally Americans noticed. Even my students noticed and so together we created the Edinger House Sierra Leone Project.
Atrocities drew the world’s attention to Sierra Leone, genocide to Dafur, and a celebrity’s adoption to Malawi. Which country will be next? Why? And will it result in a better understanding of Africa and its people? I wonder.
I’ll end with another Madonna, “The Holy Virgin Mary” by African- inspired artist Chris Ofili, which sparked quite a bit controversy here in NYC some years ago.