Joyce Banda, the iron lady of MalawiBy REX CHIKOKO in Blantyre | Friday, April 13 2012 at 08:34
The spat between Callista Mutharika, the wife of the departed Malawi President Bingu Mutharika, and his successor, Joyce Banda was a harbinger of things to come.
Blinded by proximity to power and its trappings, the former First Lady derided Mrs Banda as a “mandasi” (a kind of dumpling) woman of no consequence.
As vice-president, Banda had differed with President Mutharika when it became clear that he was grooming his brother James to succeed him. Banda was fired from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) but she founded her own party and remained vice-president, thanks to the constitution.
“You distribute little money here and there for village women to sell mandasi and you think you can become president?” Callista Mutharika had harangued the future president.
“I am a mandasi woman, and I am a supporter of all mandasi women, all market women in Malawi, and all tomato women in the country. That is my constituency," Banda retorted.
The mandasi solidarity paid off. Last week, Banda wielded the symbolic sword of power and was sworn in as Malawi’s fourth--and the country's first woman-- president.
Took the oath
In a printed floral dress with matching headgear and a grey wrapper across her right shoulder, Joyce Hilda Mtila Banda walked to the podium in the new Parliament building in Lilongwe and took the oath that changed Malawi’s history forever as foe and friend watched.
The daughter of Gray John Stewart Mtila, a former policeman, composer, and famous drum major of the police brass band, Banda became the second woman President in Africa, after Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
Born on April 12, 1950, President Banda’s ascendancy to greatness was predetermined at an early age by circumstances that ushered her into an adventurous life that later defined her persona.
As her father was tossed from one police station to another because of the nature of his job, his daughter had the opportunity to travel the length and breadth of Malawi.
The young Yao girl would appreciate the various ways of life of the major communities in Malawi such as the Chewa, Tumbuka, Mang’anja, Tonga, Ngonde, Lhomwe, and Sena.
Unlike her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, who was largely viewed as aloof, Banda is regarded as a “woman of the people”. Mutharika died on Thursday, March 5.
Easily switch roles
By her own admission, the President’s home is neither Malindi in Mangochi District, where her father came from, nor Domasi in Zomba District, where her mother, Edith Chimwele, hailed. It is also not Nkhata Bay District, the home of her husband, retired Chief Justice Richard Banda.
“I belong everywhere,” she has told many political rallies. The message is that she belongs everywhere she lived with her father and siblings McArthur, Festa, Cecilia, and Anjumile.
Former President Bingu wa Mutharika. FILE
Former President Bingu wa Mutharika. FILE
A mother of five children — three from her earlier marriage with Geoffrey Kachale and two stepchildren with her current husband, the President cuts the figure of a person who can easily switch between the roles of politician, activist, mother, and wife with ease.
Banda is now listed as Africa’s third most powerful woman by Forbes magazine, after Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Johnson-Sirleaf and Nigerian minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Okonjo-Iweala is vying to head the World Bank.
President Banda’s activism, though, is said to have stemmed from her sojourn in Kenya, where she was in an abusive marriage to Geoffrey, a staffer with the Malawian embassy. She was helped to leave and return to Malawi by a women’s movement.
A personal mission
Having lived in close proximity with the effects of abuse and seen the poverty that permeates Malawian society and relegates women to the position of doormats of their breadwinner husbands, Banda made women empowerment a personal mission.
She founded the National Association of Business Women (NABW) in 1989 to empower thousands of women to become self-reliant economically by providing training and loans to start small businesses.
NABW empowered rural women and disbursed loans worth over $2 million to more than 12,000 women. Banda’s quest to empower the small-scale business woman earned her the moniker, “The Mandasi Woman”.
Banda’s endeavours to empower women did not stop at enabling rural women to have money in their pocket; they aimed to ensure that they had enough food at the household level. Therefore, she was instrumental in the establishment of the Hunger Project in Malawi.
Ironically, Callista Mutharika worked with Banda at the Hunger Project years before she became First Lady.
Banda’s war against hunger eventually earned her The Africa Award for Leadership for Sustainable End of Hunger, which she shared with former Mozambique President Joachim Chissano.
Other awards under her belt include Women of Substance from the Africa Women Development Fund and the International Award for the Health and Dignity of Women and Woman of the Year.
Banda used some of the proceeds from the End of Hunger award to educate children and orphans through her Joyce Banda Foundation International.
She has enrolled for a Masters’ degree programme and has a Bachelor of Arts degree in early childhood education.
Malawi Watch executive director Billy Banda says although the President has not always been a political giant, she played a pivotal role in the democratisation of the country and the formulation of a Bill of Rights in the constitution.
"Banda was the first chairperson of NGO-Gender Coordination Network and passionately supported the 50-50 gender representation campaign,” he recalls.
As vice-president, Banda recently joined Malawi women for national prayers after scores of vendors in the capital city, Lilongwe, stripped women who were wearing trousers and miniskirts.
Banda’s leadership skills were also recognised by Malawi’s second President Bakili Muluzi, who appointed her to chair several boards of statutory corporations.
Lack of evidence
They included the Malawi Communication Regularity Authority (Macra), the Malawi Housing Corporation (MHC), and the Agriculture Development Market Corporation (Admarc).
Significantly, she was the chairperson of Admarc when Malawi sold maize to Kenya at the time her compatriots were dying of hunger. A case was instituted against her for allegedly diverting or aiding maize diversion to Kenya, but was later dropped due to lack of evidence.
The President is a member of the Church of Central African Presbytery’d women’s guild. “She spends most of her time assisting people and praying. She is a humble person who fears God,” says Banda’s spokesperson Ruth Govati.
Her “religious pilgrimages” have two times taken her to the Synagogue Church For All Nations (SCOAN) of Prophet TB Joshua in Nigeria.
In a strange coincidence, a Zimbabwean politician has tried to link the evangelist to Mutharika’s death. Prof Joshua Moyo, a senior official of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF, on Wednesday claimed that the preacher was covering up a plot.
It has been reported that Prophet TB Joshua had about two months ago told his congregation that an African Head of State would die of illness in 60 days. He is alleged to have specified the day and date of death in a subsequent sermon.
Wield big stick
The Prof Moyo sensationally claimed that: “In some circles there is even spirited speculation that TB Joshua had privileged intelligence information about a death plot against President wa Mutharika and the plotters used him as their microphone to divert attention and let the death appear like it was an act of God when it was an intelligence operation.”
President Banda’s associates say she likes to cook for her husband when she has time. Although she may like domestic chores, she can certainly wield a big stick.
On Wednesday, she sacked Patricia Kaliati, the Information minister, who publicly insisted that Bingu wa Mutharika was alive, more than one day after his death.
The sacking was part of the shake-up of top officials unveiled by President Banda Tuesday. President Banda also purged Mutharika loyalists who were in charge of government finances and media.
"Although we are in mourning, certain decisions cannot wait,” President Banda told a news conference in the capital Lilongwe, three days after taking office.
She also announced an investigation into the murder of student activist Robert Chasowa and fired police chief Peter Mukhito.
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Beyond the ballot