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Exclusive: Madonna Speaks About Her "Big, Big Project"

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FRANK MICELOTTA / GETTY

Madonna

Malawi, a Pennsylvania-sized country in southeast Africa, has four things in abundance: AIDS, malaria, drought and tobacco (its major crop). It also has a functioning democracy and little conflict. To date, therefore, it has not attracted much attention from the rest of the world. But that's about to change. Malawi is about to be hit by a force that has thrown much more robust countries for a loop. Her name is Madonna.

And being Madonna, she's not arriving in Malawi by halves. She has already committed to raising at least $3 million to fund programs particularly aimed at orphans there. Of Malawi's population of 12 million, about a million are orphans. Ground has just been broken on an orphan care center, which aims to feed and educate as many as 1,000 children a day. She has also formed a partnership with developing-world economic guru Jeffrey Sachs on programs to improve the health, agriculture and economy of a village nearby. She's financing—to the tune of about $1 million—a documentary about the plight of children there. And she has met with Bill Clinton to see if they can work together to bring low-cost medicines to the area, as well as partnering with several aid organizations. This, mind you, is all before Madonna has ever even set foot in Africa. (She plans to go in October.)

"For the last few yearsŚnow that I have children and now that I have what I consider to be a better perspective on life—I have felt responsible for the children of the world," says Madonna, taking a break between London concert dates . "I've been doing bits and bobs about it and I suppose I was looking for a big, big project I could sink my teeth into." The "better perspective" she attributes to Kabbalah, the study of Jewish mysticism. Her co-founder in the Raising Malawi project is Michael Berg, founder of the Kabbalah center in Los Angeles and one of the driving forces behind its growing popularity. And although it has no religious affiliation, the orphan-care center—which will be like a day camp for orphans, who often have relatives who will give them a place to sleep but cannot feed them—will offer programs based on Spirituality for Kids, Kabbalah's children's program. "One of the main precepts of Kabbalah is that we're put on this earth to help people," says Madonna. "And your job is to figure out how you can help, and what it is that you can do."

Madonna is the latest in a line of major stars who have been trying to cast some of their limelight onto the situation in Africa. Sachs, who Madonna called after she read his book The End of Poverty, has already worked closely with Bono and Angelina Jolie, among others. He knows people are cynical about celebrities' philanthropic efforts, but having met with Madonna (they had lunch and then he went to his first-ever Madonna concert), he's not. "Of course there are no doubt people who on a fling say something, but that's not what Madonna's doing, it's not what Angelina's doing, it's not what Bono's doing," he says. "In the very noisy and complicated world that we have, people that reach large numbers of people, like Madonna does, have an extraordinarily important role to play. When they're devoting their time, their money, their name, a lot of effort, a lot of organization skill to all of this, it makes a huge difference. The cynics are just wrong. They don't get it."