Adopting four children from Malawi and working to save lives through HIV/AIDS awareness in the country would get the ordinary person a badge of honor. Madonna, on the other hand, has seemingly received criticism through the years for her life-saving actions. The celebrity mom of six opens up about her motivation behind serving as a philanthropist in Malawi and adopting four children from the country in the recent issue of PEOPLE.
“I’m here to save lives,” Madonna tells the magazine. “I don’t want to be the outsider that comes in. I want to help them help themselves.”
The ‘Material Girl’ singer’s passion for the people of Malawi comes from her experience with the AIDS epidemic in the United States. “When the AIDS epidemic first came to New York and I was living on the Lower East Side, my best friend was HIV-positive,” she reveals.
“I went to St. Vincent’s hospital because I saw that the gay community was being marginalized in a crazy way that I’d never experienced before. I remember going into the AIDS ward with rows of beds, emaciated people, the smell of death. And just feeling a sense of responsibility and compassion, thinking: ‘How can I help these people, how can I love these people, how can I make them feel better?’ Because everyone was casting them aside and not wanting to touch them.”
In similar form, everyone seemingly “cast aside” the people of Malawi who contracted the virus when Madonna touched down in the country for the first time several years back. “I knew I wanted to help right away,” the singer says, “and I knew I could help in big ways and small.”
One big way that the singer sought to help was through improved educational opportunities for girls. “Girls’ education is super important to me, and many African girls don’t usually go past primary school. It’s not encouraged, and/or it’s not safe because they have to walk really far to get to the school, or there’s no place to go to the bathroom that’s private; it just becomes a dangerous situation, so girls choose not to go,” Madonna explains. “Girls stay home, then they get married when they’re 14, 15, 16 — and then they’re housewives and caring for families. It’s a cycle that they can’t get out of.”
Madonna has sought to create a path for improved living conditions for young girls and Malawi citizens at large through her Raising Malawi charity. The celebrity mom also opened the Mercy James Centre a few months back, which serves as the first state of the art medical center of its kind in the region. Highly trained staff can perform everything from routine exams to surgical procedures all while educating aspiring professionals to do the same.
“In this new facility, we can train nurses, we can train surgeons, we can train pediatricians in critical care,” Dr. Eric Borgstein, a pediatric surgeon at Mercy James Centre, says. “It will have a huge impact and create something sustainable. Without Madonna, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Although she has faced her fair share of challenges along the way, Madonna continues to strive to make the lives of Malawian citizens better and does not neglect to take her children – Mercy, Lourdes, David, Rocco, Estere, and Stelle – with her so that they, too, can give back.
“I love when my kids are in Africa,” she tells PEOPLE. “Their selfless behavior, compared to the normal complaining in the privileged world we live in, is great to see.”
Check out Madonna and the kids’ full spread in the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands nationwide!