Malawi is a Pennsylvania-size country in southeast Africa that has four things in abundance that the West doesn't much covet: AIDS, malaria, drought and tobacco (its major crop, now not so lucrative). On the plus side, it has a functioning democracy and no full-blown war. That may explain why, to date, Malawi has not attracted much attention from the rest of the world. But that's about to change. Malawi will soon be hit by a force that has thrown far more robust countries into chaos. Her name is Madonna.
And being Madonna, she's not going into Malawi quietly. She has already promised to raise at least $3 million to fund programs that would mostly help orphans there (another thing Malawi has in excess, thanks to AIDS. Of its population of about 13 million, 1 million are children who have lost at least one parent). Ground will soon be broken on an orphan-care center, which aims initially to feed and educate at least 1,000 children a day. She's financing--to the tune of about $1 million--a documentary about the plight of Malawian children. And she has met with Bill Clinton to see whether they can work together to bring low-cost medicines to the area, as well as partnered with several other aid organizations.
Given that Madonna has never actually set foot in Africa (husband Guy Ritchie went earlier this year), the whole enterprise has the pungent aroma of a coordinated act of publicity. But one of the partnerships she has formed is with developing-world economic guru Jeffrey Sachs (who suffers no dilettantes): an agreement to provide $1.5 million for one of his millennium villages. They want to end poverty in one community--in this case the village of Gumulira, outside the capital Lilongwe--by simultaneously improving the health, agricultural productivity and education of its people.
"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, resting before a London concert. "I've been doing bits and bobs about it, and I suppose I was looking for a big, big project I could sink my teeth into." The "better perspective" she attributes to Kabbalah, the study of Jewish mysticism. Her co-founder in Raising Malawi, as her new organization is known, is Michael Berg, the head of the Kabbalah center in Los Angeles and one of the driving forces behind the practice's growing popularity. The Malawi care center--which will be a day camp for orphans whose relatives can take them in but struggle to feed them--will be run by Consol Homes, which does not have a religious affiliation. But the center will offer programs based on Spirituality for Kids, Kabbalah's children's program. Malawian teachers are already being trained to use and adapt it. "One of the main precepts of Kabbalah is that we're put on this earth to help people," says Madonna. "And your job is to figure out how you can help and what it is that you can do."