Malawi’s Song, or why Ben Mulroney is a bit of a twit

Someone once said to me: “if you are the son of a US president, you become a president. If you are the son of a Canadian Prime Minister, you host daytime TV.” Case and point – Ben Mulroney.

Ben hosts etalk, interviews celebrities as they stroll down the red carpet, and works pretty darn hard to morph into a tall, Canadian Ryan Seacrest (complete with Idol host-post). Good news folks, Mr. Mulroney (Jr.) can now add mini-Madonna and spitfire political pundit (or something like that) to his extensive resume. Madge’s work in Malawi has been the subject of media frenzy and has apparently brought my home-away-from-home crashing into the spotlight. Since you can read about Madonna and Africaholism elsewhere, I am just going to get to the gist — calling Ben Mulroney out for painful inaccuracies in his documentary “Malawi’s Song” which you can watch for free on CTV.ca The short film (which is presented in 5×10 minute chapters) features Mulroney (apparently the Canadian Ambassador to UNICEF — is this really the best that we can do!!?) and his Canadian Idol co-star Farley Flex on a trip around southern Malawi visiting children in a collection of orphanages, hospitals, and villages. I could probably ramble on for pages about the film’s lack of perspective, but that song has probably been sung. Instead, I will touch briefly on a few stand-out points and explain why this “documentary” drives me so darn crazy.

Chapter 4 begins with ominous, toneless music, and Ben saying “filth and dirt and disease.” He is describing Mwanza District Hospital in South-Western Malawi (due west of Blantyre near the Mozambique Border). He certainly has a point about the low quality of public health services in Malawi, but I am moderately resentful of the way that this information is conveyed — soul sucking music does not a productive documentary make. Mild resentment turns to outrage mere seconds later when Farley pipes in with this gem of empirical inaccuracy –

“You know when you visit the hospitals… with the understanding of the extent of, uh, the population that is infected, as I mentioned, 60% HIV positive…”

More ominous tones. For my favorite debate between ignorant volunteers/observers and health researchers on the issue of Malawi’s HIV rates, read the words exchanged over at haba na haba. Cutting through the blah-blah-blah, I am just going to say that Malawi does not have HIV rates of 60%. I entered biomarker results in the field for weeks last summer and we never captured prevalence over 12%. Even UNAIDS estimates 11%.  I don’t know who told Farley Flex that particular statistic, but this is proof that (1) celebrities are not epidemiologists, (2) you can’t believe everything you hear in a documentary, and (3) that the snarky 3Hands volunteer (see haba na haba link above) isn’t the only person throwing around big numbers like they are going out of style.

Back to Ben — another favorite moment is when he picks up a kid at an orphanage and says “Zikomo” (thank you). The man travels all the way to Malawi and doesn’t even learn Chichewa for hello?! GAH! He then tells the audience that AIDS orphans and regular orphans are being taught together to reduce stigma — I am sorry, 2 year old children stigmatizing against other orphans based on how their parents passed away? Call me incredulous.

Okay, I have to ask myself, why am I being so critical? In part it is because I find Ben Mulroney smarmy and I resent his status as the face of Canadian entertainment journalism (I vote we put Rick Mercer on the next red carpet). It could also be because I am sick of celebrities saying depressing and blatantly inaccurate things about a pretty stellar country. What it comes down to though is that I shudder to think about past-Lynn watching documentaries and soaking them up like the gospel. l wonder if Mulroney and Flex are going to wake up in 10 years, take a good hard look at this documentary, and really question the dangers of celebrity. As “they” say, hindsight is 20-20.

P.S. Apparently Ben stands behind Madonna in Malawi. My favorite part of this article:

“No one over there knew who Madonna was,” he explained yesterday. “There’s no TV, the music is indigenous, they’ve got their own things to worry about.”

This is certainly not the impression that I got. Sure, people don’t know about pointy bras and “Like a Virgin,” but Madonna’s presence is certainly felt. She pops up in the Nation (Malawi’s national newspaper) on a fairly regular basis and her controversial adoption of David Banda is pretty widely discussed. Also, it is innacurate to say that there is no TV, and that music is indigenous, in Malawi. I will write about media in Malawi another time but suffice it to say, Mulroney really lacks perspective on the issue.

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One response to “Malawi’s Song, or why Ben Mulroney is a bit of a twit

  1. Pingback: Face of Malawi |·

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