BLANTYRE, Malawi – In a land dispute pitting Madonna against African villagers, Malawi's government has sided with the pop star who has pumped millions into this impoverished southern African country and adopted two of its children.
Villagers have been refusing to move from a plot of land near the capital, Lilongwe, where Madonna wants to build a $15 million school for girls. The government, however, says it had originally planned to develop the plot, and only allowed the villagers to live there until a project was identified.
Thursday, Lilongwe District Commissioner Charles Kalemba, accompanied by other government officials and representatives from Madonna's Raising Malawi charity, met with about 200 villagers and told them they would have to move. The villagers have been offered other government land.
"Government allowed you to occupy this land because there was no project yet. But now that Madonna wants to build you a school you have to give way," Kalemba told the villagers. "You are lucky that Madonna has compensated you for your houses, gardens and trees."
Anjimile Mtila-Oponyo, who will be principal of Madonna's school, said the singer paid the villagers more than 16 million kwacha (about $115,000) to compensate them for their houses — mostly mud-and-thatch structures — and improvements such as gardens and trees.
Headman Binson Chinkhota urged residents to move, saying the school would benefit their children. But Amos Mkuyu said the $1,500 in compensation he received from Madonna for mango trees and three homes was not enough. He said his family had been living on his seven-acre (three-hectare) plot for three generations.
The villagers are bitter, he said, but "there is nothing much we can do because government is using threats."
Mtila-Oponyo, the principal, said the school project was going ahead.
"We stalled for some months because of the land dispute," she said. "We are now in full swing and we intend to meet the 2011 deadline we set for ourselves."
According to its master-plan, the Raising Malawi Academy for Girls will be constructed with modern environment-friendly techniques, including solar panels for generating electricity. Mtila-Oponyo said the academy will serve 500 girls, mainly from underprivileged households.
"The academy will have a strong emphasis on sciences because it is the dream of Madonna that Malawi should train its own scientists and doctors to help the vulnerable Malawian girls and women who die needlessly because of lack of local expertise," she said.
Madonna adopted a daughter from Malawi last year and a son in 2008. Her Raising Malawi, a charity founded in 2006 when she first visited the country, helps feed, educate and provide medical care for orphans. In this nation of 12 million, about 500,000 children have lost a parent to AIDS.
Her adoptions raised concern among children's welfare groups, who questioned whether rules meant to protect children were being bent because of Madonna's celebrity, and perhaps out of gratitude for what she has done for Malawi.
While her 2008 adoption went relatively smoothly, a lower court at first rejected her bid to adopt her daughter, saying Madonna had not spent enough time in Malawi.
That case went to the nation's highest court. In June, a three-judge panel that included Chief Justice Lovemore Munlo said the initial rejection was a narrow interpretation based on old laws. The ruling that allowed her to adopt also cited the singer's commitment to helping disadvantaged children.