November 03, 2006

Madonna in Malawi: distinguished white lady?

It's a fair bet that most Americans were unaware of the existence of the poverty-stricken African nation of Malawi before Madonna decided to fund an orphanage there and adopt a Malawian child. Now that Madonna is making the media rounds to smooth over criticism of her adoption efforts, she's also bringing some unexpected attention to Chichewa, Malawi's national language (along with English). The Associated Press reports:

"People started to say my name and they had never heard of Madonna," the 48-year-old singer, talking about her recent visit to Malawi, told AP Television in an interview Tuesday.
"And, in Chichewa, the word 'madonna' means 'distinguished white lady,' so I think they got very confused."

At the very least Madonna's mention of Chichewa is an improvement over earlier reports that she was planning to learn "Bantu" so that her adopted son could remain in touch with his Malawian roots. "Bantu" of course refers to a language family rather than a particular language, encompassing Chichewa and hundreds of other distinct languages throughout the southern half of Africa. So if Madonna has now figured out the name of the language of her new son's homeland, how'd she do with the gloss of madonna as 'distinguished white lady'?

Turns out she wasn't too far off, though she should probably keep working on those Chichewa lessons. The word to which she refers is madona, which consists of dona 'lady' plus the plural prefix ma-. (Compare makaku, the plural of kaku 'mangabey' in Bantu languages of Gabon and Congo, which is the etymon for macaque and, possibly, George Allen's notorious epithet Macaca.) The word appears in the Chichewa equivalent of "ladies and gentlemen," mabwana ndi madona — as in this song in honor of Malawi's first president Dr. Hastings Banda (or more recently, this post on a Malawian message board). So for starters, it's 'ladies' rather than 'lady'. But what about the 'distinguished white' business?

The honorific dona has indeed been used to refer to white women in Malawi since colonial times. Presumably the word itself is a vestige of Portugal's early colonial ties to Africa, derived from Portuguese dona — cognate with Spanish don/doña and ultimately from Latin dominus/domina. (Note also the Old Italian cognate donna, which in the form ma donna 'my lady' provides the etymological source for Madonna Ciccone's first name.) According to an article on the Dutch Reformed Church Mission in Malawi (History of Education Quarterly, Autumn 1984), the DRCM's female missionaries were known as madona, and the girls' homes that they supervised in the late 19th century were called Ku Madona. The presence of European women in Malawi also gave rise to a style of ceremonial mask known as Dona (described here and here), emulating the women's foreign features. So (ma)dona has survived as a more generalized honorific for distinguished ladies as well as a term specifically used for women of European descent.

The racialized sense of (ma)dona did apparently have some resonance for Yohane Banda, the father of Madonna's adopted son David. At least that's what a Malawian blogger named Steve Sharra wrote, most likely based on local news reports:

For Mr. Yohane Banda, who had never heard of the pop diva Madonna until she visited Malawi last week to adopt his 13 month-old son David, the closest he could relate with the material girl was the word Dona, meaning rich white woman, in Malawian parlance. In a matter of days, he now knows her, and the rich guy Guy Ritchie, as the new parents of his son.

Perhaps that rich white lady Madonna will do for Chichewa what Mel Gibson (before his fall from grace) hoped to do for Yucatec Maya. Shouldn't every indigenous language have its own celebrity spokesperson?

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 3, 2006 01:52 PM