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Our Lady of Malawi

1. The Spirit Guide: Karen Berg, the Kabbalah Centre's matriarch, helped turn an obscure Jewish text into one of the most popular spiritual disciplines for the famous.
2. The Local Talent: A U.S.-educated Malawian U.N. official, Anjimile Oponyo was hired to run Madonna's school—then fired before it ever opened.
3. The Man Friday: Philippe van den Bossche, a Kabbalah Centre devotee, became the school's executive director and a core member of Madonna's entourage—until he was suddenly fired.
4. The Charity Consultant: Trevor Neilson helped Brangelina and others to harmonize their giving and their image. But Madonna's Malawi efforts presented a big problem.  

“When being was created, God’s one soul shattered into infinite pieces,” says Billy Phillips, a 22-year student of the Centre who runs an intellectual-property licensing business. “If you imagine a piece of fine china when it gets smashed, it goes into many different-size pieces. Each piece is equally important, but they’re different sizes. Madonna is considered to be a bigger piece of a shattered vessel, but is the wire on a super­computer any less important than the microprocessor? No, that microprocessor is useless if the wire is snipped—the computer doesn’t work. So everybody in Kabbalah has equal importance, but not everybody has equal work to do.”

Madonna, being Madonna, is one of those who has a great deal of work to do. And, much like monarchs of earlier centuries, she saw her destiny abroad, much like other stars who were making their own forays into celebrity colonialism—Bono, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. These days, Hollywood etiquette demands that stars associate themselves with a charitable cause, and they tend to look for a serious international issue, leaving kitsch like auctioning off locks of hair to Justin Bieber. The most stunning act of charitable giving by a celebrity has to be Oprah’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, funded by her $40 million donation. Modeled after Miss Porter’s, where Jackie O. and Gloria Vanderbilt matriculated and where, more recently, Oprah had sent her nieces, the school is reportedly decorated with silk cushions, orchids, and crystal in the dining room, plus a 10,000-volume library with a stash of plush socks near the fireplace, for the ultimate in cozy feet while reading a book.

Madonna wanted to start a girls’ boarding school, too. The Kabbalah Centre, which has always been interested in spreading the Light to impoverished nations (distributing Zohars to the needy is one of their efforts), had already started some charitable activities in Malawi with Madonna. Now she thought that it was a good place for her academy, a $15 million boarding school for 400 girls. Malawi, the tenth-poorest nation in the world, is a tiny landlocked country wedged among Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique, much of whose population was shipped to Zanzibar to be sold at slave auctions until the country was Christianized by Scottish missionaries in the nineteenth century. The majority of Malawians are subsistence farmers who live on less than $1 a day. One in every eight people in the country is infected with HIV/AIDS, and at least a half-million children have been orphaned by the disease.

There was abundant celebrity logic to her mission: To be a Madonna, it made sense for her to try to “raise” some motherless children, as the heavily loaded title of her charity, Raising Malawi, implies. The Raising Malawi Academy for Girls would focus on law and medicine, so that the children educated there would grow up to both protect Malawi from corruption and heal it with their hands. Like Oprah, Madonna hoped to have a nationwide application process, selecting the best female student from each village for the school.

But why stop with a school? By 2006, she had also decided that she wanted to adopt kids from Malawi, too. For most of us, this would have presented a problem: Malawi does not allow international adoptions to prospective parents who have not lived in the country for at least 24 months, fearing that its vulnerable children might be exploited by child traffickers. After much wrangling, a judge ruled that Madonna’s role as a charitable giver in Malawi made her a special kind of personage, one to whom the laws of the land did not apply.

The Malawian government was very excited about a prestigious academy being established in their country. They agreed to donate 111 acres of land for the school, charging only about $8,600 a year for a 99-year lease. She reportedly put in $11 million of her own money and promised to match any dollar that anyone else gave. She even organized a black-tie party with Gucci in a tent at the U.N., raising another $3 million, with Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez, and Diddy in attendance. “With Madonna, it’s not like she calls you up,” declared Diddy. “But when she does it, she does it big.”

In a television interview last year, Madonna expanded on her reasons for building the school. “On one hand, I went to Malawi and I thought, I have to help. I have to save these people,” she explained. “And then I thought, Wait a minute, I think it’s the other way around. I think they might be saving me.” After all, Kabbalah teaches that the holiest kind of giving is one in which you receive nothing back—and of all the places in the world, Malawi certainly had the least to give in return.