Sunday Morning~ Blantyre
Tsamba likagwa manyazi amagwira mtengo ~ When a leaf falls to the ground, the tree is to blame.
~ Malawian Proverb
July 16, 2017
Pop culture has never been my strong suit. I’ve always relied on friends to keep me minimally informed, even in high school. When the 80’s hit, I stopped trying altogether. I was either pregnant, supporting the family on minimum wage, or in graduate school. Some of that simultaneously. We didn’t have a TV and only listened to NPR and cassette tapes of John Denver and James Taylor. If it wasn’t referenced on Prairie Home Companion, I didn’t hear about it. What I knew of Madonna consisted of: 1. she posed nude somewhere or other, 2. she played Evita in the movie, and 3. she adopted some kids from Malawi (but wasn’t sure if it was Madonna or Angelina Jolie who did that.) I did know she is a singer but wouldn’t recognize a song of hers if she were singing it to me personally. But now I want to learn more about her.
The Mercy James Hospital For Pediatric Surgery opened this week. If you saw none of the surroundings outside a twenty foot radius of the place, you’d think it was uptown Manhattan. Ok, maybe Miami, given the palm trees. This is a hospital whose conception was a mere three years ago, when Eric Borgstein, the pediatric surgeon here, was looking for a space to create a pediatric ICU. Eric is Dutch, but has lived in Malawi since he was a child. His father was a surgeon here and his 92 year old mother is a pediatrician. She started the pediatric department at QECH. She retired only a few years ago and lives next to Eric and his wife Sophie, in a spectacular spot near the presidential palace. It was their house that we rode our bikes to in February, thinking we would die before arriving. Anyway, Eric met Madonna when she was here making a documentary film called I Am Because We Are, about the orphan crisis in Malawi following the AIDS epidemic. When they couldn’t find a suitable space or resources to form an intensive care unit for kids, Madonna was approached about funding one. What resulted was this state-of-the-art medical center and the opening ceremony was this past Tuesday.
Sophie Borgstein had come over to our house two weeks ago to learn how to make gnocchi. She brought a load of fresh turmeric and ginger from her garden and some fresh milk from her cows. They have an incredible forty-acre farm. We were chatting, and she mentioned the opening ceremony and I asked her if Madonna would be there. She said, “Oh yes. She’s coming. The president is, too.” Then I asked if anyone could attend this thing? (I do love ceremonies) But she said, no, they were keeping it small and it was invitation only. Madonna wanted to keep it to 100 people only and there would be lots of people from the ministry of health, etc. So I figured, ok, I guess I can go another few years without laying eyes on this generous superstar. Then Tuesday, Ursula, my dean, asked if I was planning to go to the opening of the hospital? I told her no, I thought it was invitation only. She said she heard that there was a section reserved for nursing faculty and was planning to go. So, I said, “Sure, I’ll go along.” I’m happy to sit and listen to speeches as long as they are live and there are celebrities involved. I had to do some errands first, but we were supposed to meet at two to go over together. When I got back to the office at 1:30 the group had already gone. Miriam, an older woman on the medical surgical faculty, was the one with the official invitation and someone told me she had just walked by. She’s quite elderly and walks slow, so I figured I could catch her. I ran along the corridors to the outside walkway leading to the new hospital and didn’t see her. What I did see was a huge crowd singing and dancing in anticipation of the president’s arrival. I looked over their heads and saw Miriam across the street, just entering the gate to the ceremonial tent. I wormed my way through the crowd on one side of the street, crossed between policemen to another crowd on the opposite side, got through them, and ran up to the gate where they were turning people away. I heard one guard say, “No more entering here!” and a bunch of people turned to leave which left me in front of the gate. I said, “Excuse me, I’m with my colleagues and they just went in.” I could see Miriam not far inside. And they opened the gate and let me in! I thought, “Hmm, that was easy.” I ran up to Miriam and asked where the others were? She told me, “They weren’t allowed in. They didn’t have an invitation.” Uh oh. I said, “Neither do I. They just let me in.” Then I looked around and everyone there had a little plastic bracelet on their wrist. Their ticket. I covered my wrist so no one could see I didn’t have one, and Miriam said, “Just stay close to me.” So that’s how I got into this invitation-only event. I guess it helps to be wearing a uniform and have white skin. (Though another one of our volunteers just as white as me wasn’t allowed in.)
I sat closer to the stage than I do to the altar at church. I recognized Madonna when she and her kids went up to rehearse the program. Not like I wasn’t expecting that to be her, but I did recognize her, whereas Miriam did not. I felt rather hip having seen the trailer for Evita. They made an announcement early on that there were to be no photographs taken if you were not a member of the press. I probably could have sneaked one, but I didn’t want to do anything to call attention to myself. I sat demurely with one hand over my wrist, except for when I put it over my heart for the national anthem.
It was pretty cool. Eric Borgstein spoke first, very beautiful speech. Then Madonna spoke, also a great speech, which included her story about growing up without a mother, and how she fell in love with the first two Malawian babies she adopted. The first is a boy named David and that adoption went fairly smoothly. The second, Mercy James, for whom the hospital is named, not so much. She had been recently divorced and the Malawian courts wouldn’t allow a single mother to adopt a child. Apparently this didn’t go over well with Madonna and, also apparently, she isn’t used to being told “No.” She hired a team of lawyers and it took three and a half years, but she finally adopted this girl, who is now a beautiful young woman. The main point of her speech was persist and do not give up. I am all on-board with that and liked the spirit, enthusiasm, and success story. I’m sure it helped to be a bazillionaire, but her heart is in the right place. Mercy then went up on stage and did a short speech of her own. I leaned over to Miriam and said, “Can you imagine going from a local orphanage to Madonna’s house? Talk about two different worlds.” Madonna recently adopted young twin girls but she didn’t talk about them. Her son David has done a bunch of the art work in the new hospital and he performed with a dance group from one of the orphanages, a really impressive dance. And I’m not sure, but the music they danced to might have been Madonna singing. I didn’t recognize the recording, but it was a female singer and I thought it might be her. Don’t quote me on that one though. She did not personally sing at this event. After that the minister of health spoke and that was a little anti-climactic. Then the president spoke and that was even more anti-climactic and hard to listen to. He mumbled a lot and I couldn’t understand anything he said. Thankfully it was short. Then a Malawian band played traditional music and Madonna got up and danced with the first lady. Everyone loved that. Since all eyes were on her and it was nearing the end of the ceremony I almost dared take a photo, but thought better not. I’ll check, I think they might be on the Raising Malawi webpage. With the size of all the lenses on the cameras there, I figured I could find a photo that would be a lot better than anything I could take.
And then it was over. I didn’t get an invitation for dinner with her or anything so I didn’t get to ask if she’d throw a few bucks toward the model ward in maternity. To my knowledge, there was no fraternizing with her afterward. She travels with an entourage bigger than the president’s. She must have had seventy-five people surrounding her, body guards and I don’t know who else. They all had little earpieces like secret service, though. I did get close enough to see those. So that was my big news of the week. When I got back to the office Ursula asked, “How did you get it without a wrist band?! We saw you inside!” I said, “I told them I was with you and they let me in and then I found out they didn’t let you in!” We had a good laugh, and then she told me the Malawian take on Madonna’s adoption stories. She said there was a lot of controversy since Mercy’s father was still alive and he didn’t understand what he was signing away. But people thought that girl would have so many more opportunities than if she stayed in the orphanage since her father couldn’t care for her, and now with this big beautiful facility I guess the ruffled feathers have been smoothed. And they all come back to Malawi frequently so the kids will know their homeland. Amazing what you can do if you’re white and have tons of money.
The proverb this week has to do with the Malawians’ belief that everything a child does reflects on their parents. So you must behave well in order not to shame your parents. This line of thinking never went very far with my own kids, but it’s well-adhered to here. I put that in today because I was just thinking about mothers and kids. No big connection to anything else.
In two weeks I’ll be home! I’ve gotten through about half the grading I have to do and am tying up some loose ends. While home I’ll be applying for a grant to get this model ward off the ground, so got some preliminary stuff done for that. I’m going up to Mzuzu this week to consult on a women’s health course that will be given in August, and have to stop in Lilongwe to get my passport and work permit. Then it’ll be less than one week till I hug my own babies! Can’t wait.
Love to all,