Brendan O'Neill
Brendan O'Neill

The white Madonna’s burden

In the May issue of Vanity Fair, there was a telling exchange between its cover star Madonna –- resplendent in leotard and black knee–length boots –- and her interviewer, Rich Cohen.

They were talking about David Banda, the child adopted by Madonna in Malawi in 2006. Understandably, Madonna is gushing about her adopted son and everything that he “represents”. And what is that, exactly? Cohen explains: baby David is a “living totem of life as it was lived before machines”.

In other words, he’s a simple, wide–eyed, primitive being who helps to remind Madonna about what is really important in life as she jets from one photo–shoot and session recording to another. Cohen compares David to Pocahontas, “the beautiful Indian girl found in wild America”, and says that for “bringing this boy into her house and giving him everything”, Madonna has got “something in return”: a child who symbolises a wilder, more earthy, gritty way of life, who comes from a time “before machines”.

Madonna has never done things by half. Where most celebrities wear a plastic wristband to show how much they care for poor African babies, Madonna goes a step further and adopts one. An African baby has become the latest celebrity accessory; indeed, one might argue that having a black baby is the new black.

Madonna does not only want her own little black baby to remind her of the simplicity of life -– she also seems keen to save the whole of Africa. As one British commentator put it, she is treating the entire continent as “a little orphan that needs adopting”.

Her charity -– or what she refers to as her “big, big project” -– is tellingly called Raising Malawi. “For the last few years -– now that I have children and now that I have what I consider to be a better perspective on life -– I have felt responsible for the children of the world”, says Madonna.

Time magazine certainly seems confident that Madonna can “save” and “raise” Malawi. In a feature on Madonna’s charity, Time recently said that Malawi “has four things in abundance: AIDS, malaria, drought and tobacco (its major crop)… But that’s about to change. Malawi is about to be hit by a force that has thrown much more robust countries for a loop. Her name is Madonna.”

Are YOU an African country ravaged by Aids and parched by drought? Fear not! Simply call Madonna! This fabulously wealthy white women from the West will solve all of your problems with a few fleeting visits, some looks of pained concern for the paparazzi, and a couple of million quid in donations…

There is something creepily colonialist in Madonna’s attitude to Africa. First we had the White Man’s Burden -– now we have the White Madonna’s Burden. More and more celebrities are treating Africa as a wide-eyed child that needs a Hollywood hug -– or as a wicked devil that needs a Hollywood hammering.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have treated Africa like their own personal playground. In a shocking instance of what I have termed “celebrity colonialism”, they effectively took over Namibia in May 2006 because Ms Jolie wanted to give birth to her daughter, Shiloh Nouvel, in “the cradle of humankind” away from the clicking cameras of Western paps.

In cahoots with the Namibian authorities, Brad and Angelina -– or “Brangelina”, to use celeb–speak -– had a no–fly zone enforced over part of the country. The beach resort in Langstrand, Western Namibia, where they were staying, was sealed off with security cordons and protected by armed guards. Non–Namibian journalists had to seek permission to enter Namibia from both Brangelina and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

Phil ya Nangoloh of Namibia’s National Society for Human Rights said: “They effectively captured the state.” He described Brangelina’s control over journalists’ freedom of movement as a “blatant violation of Namibia’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech”.

Namibia was shut down because Brangelina wanted the birth of their first biological child to be a “special experience”. Just as Madonna has assumed moral responsibility for the whole of Malawi, so Brangelina temporarily occupied vast swathes of Namibia, like absolute monarchs. Entire countries are being made subordinate to the whims and wishes of ridiculously rich celebrities, who, momentarily disillusioned by the high life in LA, want an ego-boosting experience in “pre–machines” Africa.

When celebs are not treating Africa as a cute child that must be saved, they’re treating it as a disobedient boy who should be punished.

For example, celebrity activism over Darfur has done a great deal to mislead Westerners into believing that this terrible and complex conflict is a simple morality play in which “evil men” (Khartoum) are attacking “innocent men” (the rebel forces). George Clooney has said of Darfur: “It’s not a political issue. There is only right and wrong.”

Fran Healy, lead singer of the British pop group Travis, who visited Darfur on behalf of Save the Children, says: “Africa is a very complex place, but the Darfur crisis is quite simple. The conflict is essentially the Arabs against the Africans. It’s all tied up in various battles over things like oil and gold.”

The celebs’ depoliticisation of Darfur has worryingly chauvinistic, possibly even racist undertones. As Mahmood Mamdani of Colombia University in America has argued, in treating Darfur as “a place without history and without politics”, celebrities and others clearly give “the implication that the motivation of the perpetrators lies in biology (‘race’) and, if not that, certainly in ‘culture’”.

Indeed, some celebs are so concerned about corruption in Africa, and about the seeming inability of bovine Africans to overcome their biological instincts to massacre each other, that they have decided to speak on all of Africa’s behalf. Bono, the lead singer of U2, who has done perhaps more than any other celeb to convince the world that Africa is a continent of starving, cute, corrupt, demented children, once declared: “‘I represent a lot of people [in Africa] who have no voice at all… They haven’t asked me to represent them. It’s cheeky but I hope they’re glad I do.”

There is something Kiplingesque in this celebrity swarming of Africa. Kipling branded colonial subjects on the dark continent as “half–devil and half–child” –- and today that old poisonous prejudice finds expression in the celebrity view of Africa as a child that must be adopted (Malawi) or as a devil that must be punished (Sudan). Africans once resisted the armies of colonialism; now they should consider resisting the armies of celebrities, camera crews, make-up artists and hairstylists who are seeking to turn Africa into a stage for celebrity expressions of cheap moral bombast.