The school was beautiful, too. The enormous plot had been designed more like a college campus or the Ross School in the Hamptons than a school in a country where less than half the girls go to secondary school. There was a big, open-plan dining hall, a freestanding library, classrooms, dorms, a wellness center, and a gym that doubled as a theater. But soon, whether because the Centre had started to worry about the costs of the project, or Madonna started to think this was plunking a spaceship in a lunar landscape—or had gotten a whiff of upcoming legal troubles the Centre would be facing—she suddenly changed tack.
The board fired Van den Bossche and hired Trevor Neilson, a former Clinton White House staffer and “philanthropic adviser to the stars,” who is an expert in pairing celebrities to causes. Neilson, largely credited with transforming Angelina Jolie’s image, counseled fellow Kabbalists Moore and Kutcher in their recent human-trafficking campaign. “Trevor is a good guy, but he comes from politics,” says a colleague. “He plays Rahm Emanuel style.”
The project was the kind that raised Neilson’s antenna. He advised Madonna that, in a country like Malawi, she should be building village schools. He also felt the project had been mismanaged by the former team. It was true that the $3.8 million had flowed to the Malawi project—but according to Newsweek, only $850,000 of it actually reached Africa. The rest of it was spent in the U.S., with checks cut by the Kabbalah Centre, including over $1 million in unspecified construction costs (Mathew Rosengart, outside litigation for the Centre, declined to discuss any of the Centre’s financial details). Stories were leaked to the press blaming the problems with the school on incompetence in Africa, claiming the charity did not have the title to the land and that unhappy villagers were kicked off the parcel, even though it seems they were not removed.
By February, Neilson began the process of terminating the staff, but he hit a roadblock with Oponyo, whose contract called for her to be paid $380,000. When she continued to demand what she believed was rightly hers, Neilson’s office sent the draft of a press release to the Raising Malawi board that he would put out within three days if she did not agree to terms. The press release calls her demands for severance “outlandish” and contrasts Oponyo’s pay with that of the average Malawian, pointing out that “according to UNICEF, the average per capita income in Malawi is $280.”
Oponyo believed that Madonna would straighten this out for her. “I do not understand how I went from an employee you were proud of, an employee who last year women’s day you championed with so much fanfare, to this year the enemy you want to discredit in the press,” she wrote in a letter she sent to her in March. “My biggest question is, what did I ever do to make you wake up one day and decide to ruin my life, the lives of my staff and families, my career and the careers of our staff, and standing in Malawi?” She defends her salary (“check out what the head of the Winfrey Academy was getting”), chastises her for firing Van den Bossche (“I will never understand your world. It is like any good deed is punishable”), and includes a wail: “I thought you were the Messiah to save Malawian women and children.”
This was not the way to save her job. Soon, an unseen hand led the New York Times to a story pegging the problems with the school on the management team and including some descriptions from a Global Philanthropy Group report from Neilson’s office: “Philippe’s level of mismanagement and lack of oversight was extreme in both aspects of the project,” the report says; “Oponyo’s charisma masks a lack of substantive knowledge of the practical application of educational development, and her weak management skills are a major contributor to the current financial and programmatic chaos.”
In truth, there does seem to be a certain rich-person’s failure to take responsibility here. No doubt there were, along with the narcissism and grandiosity, the noblest of intentions. But when people get in the way of Madonna’s mission, what happens to them is predictable. A couple of bumps, and the tour bus rolled on.