On April 7, 2012, Joyce Banda was sworn in to become Malawi’s first female president and Africa’s second after her friend and colleague Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia. From her humble beginnings, which shaped and moulded her, Banda rose to become the most influential African women and foremost gender equality campaigner. Her passion, bravery, dedication and generosity over the years has changed the lives of millions of women in Malawi demonstrating that women have a crucial role to play in finding solutions in most communities. In this interview with Caroline Somanje, Banda gives insight into what drives her, what shaped her and discusses her childhood for the first time.
Who is Joyce Banda?
I was born on April 12, 1950 at a small hospital at Domasi College of Education. At 64 years old, I am the oldest child in a family of five — three sisters and one brother. In those days, the Yao tradition stipulated that the eldest daughter was supposed to be raised by her grandmother and named after her. My grandmother’s name was Hilda and I am, therefore, supposed to be called by that name. However, that didn’t happen. My grandmother later told me that I was named after a white midwife called Joyce. This nurse was taking her rounds one day, visited my mother’s bed and met my grandmother who was carrying me in her hands. When the nurse asked what my name was, my grandmother, I am told, asked for her name instead. She said I am Joyce. My grandmother asked for the meaning of the name. She responded and told my grandmother that it meant joy (Chimwemwe). My grandmother didn’t hesitate to give me that name because she believed I was one day going to grow up into someone like the white midwife. “Uzakhala ngati mzungu” My grandmother later told me she admired the air of authority the white midwife commanded in her white uniform and she wanted me to grow into someone like her.
Tell me about your upbringing.
I grew in a unique set-up for those days as both my parents worked. My father was a police officer and sang in the famous police band while my mother had a job at Mandala Stores in Zomba. Since my parents were working class, it meant I had to learn to take care of my siblings when both were at work at an early age of seven years. When I was 10 years old, my youngest sister Dr Anjimile Oponyo was born. As the eldest child, I had to take my brother and sister to school. After school, I had to play just like any other child in the community, but I always had to piggyback Anjimile while playing with my friends. You know sometimes as a child, you want to abrogate your responsibility and I would sometimes go out of line and put Anjimile under a tree, by the road just to have some space to play like all my age mates. What I am trying to say is that I didn’t have a chance to play like other children my age … I sometimes feel like I missed out on being a child.
My father was a very strict man. He was a no nonsense type of father, but at the same time he never compromised. He always wanted the best for his children and gave us equal opportunities. He used to teach me English language; he taught me how to sing and laboured to make sure that I knew the difference between sound and noise. His interactions influenced and shaped me. I think the way he related to me, was a way of preparing me for life, for leadership at a very young age. I remember that our uncle John Kadzamira, who apparently was a very good friend to my father, noticed something about me and remarked that I was going to do something great for the country one day. “I don’t know what it is, but that is how I feel,” he told my father, who laughed it off and reminded my uncle that I was just a young girl. The effect of that sentence has been so fundamental in my life. He reminded me at every stage of my journey about what uncle Kadzamira told him and I ended up knowing that I was destined to do something unique.
Apart from your Dad, who else influenced your life?
My grandmother. She was a generous, hardworking, self reliant entrepreneur. She made enough money and helped my parents educate us. She employed men and women in her businesses. She was so powerful in the family, but my father somehow found a way of circumventing our Yao tradition that the eldest daughter be raised by her grandmother. He managed to convince her that he would raise his daughter by himself. The agreement was that I would stay with my grandmother during weekends only. So I remember very well that I always looked forward to Fridays because I would be escorted to the bus station to travel to Domasi where she lived. Every time I arrived in the village, my best friend Chrissie (Mtokoma) Zamaere would be waiting for me. She was a year older than myself and very intelligent. She knew all about village life and taught me how to catch crabs, pick wild fruits such as masuku. She also taught me how to pick wild mushrooms on Zomba Mountain. She went to a village school and I went to Zomba C.C.A.P School. We were both selected to two of the best secondary schools in the country — she went to St Marys in Zomba and I was selected to go to Providence Secondary School in Mulanje. But what broke my heart was that she only managed one term and never went back for the second term because her parents could not afford to pay school fees of 6.10 pounds then. This was a serious turning point in my life. I made up my mind that although at that time I couldn’t do anything for Chrissie, I pledged that when I grew up; I would send as many girls as possible to school. I thank God that today; I work with Chrissie to identify needy girls to attend free secondary school education. I am also proud that although she is where I left her 50 years ago, we have been able to attend foreign meetings in New York together advocating for girls’ education.
How far did you go with your education?
You know during my days having a secondary school education was the ultimate, especially for a girl. With those qualifications one could get a good job, institutions of higher learning were not that developed. So I happened to be one of those secondary school graduates who opted for a course to get employment. I got my first job at 20. But later in life, I realised that I needed to better myself and compliment the path I was taking in leadership. I enrolled for a masters degree in leadership from the Royal Roads University in Victoria Canada. From my busy schedule, I still found time to study for a masters degree. I also feel honoured that the South Korean Jeonju University awarded me an honorary PhD in February, 2013.
Tell me more about your family
I got married when I was 21-years-old. By the time I was 25-years-old I had three children aged eight, six and four. But my marriage didn’t last. I divorced my husband Roy Kachale and became destitute. Mrs Dorothy Da Silva gave me shelter with my three children into what is today known as Jacaranda School. She kept me and my children for two years. In January, 1983, I found love again and got married to Justice Richard Banda who has been with me since. I like telling this part of my life story because I believe that this can give hope to women in abusive relationships. All is not lost, they can start all over again and make it just like I did. During my days, the pressure to remain in an abusive marriage was so high regardless of what one was going through. I have lived a risk taking life and I decided that my children were better off growing up elsewhere than in the midst of domestic violence and alcohol abuse.
Tell me about your new marriage, how happy have you been?
It has been super! Banda adopted my three children. He had four of his own. We adopted one and had two between us, becoming a household of 10 children. It was a mad house, but a happy one. Over the years, people have asked me what was the secret about this happy environment and I have always said you need to do several things as a step mum. First and foremost love all the children equally, love their father visibly and respect their mother if she happens to be alive.
Can you tell me more about your entrepreneurship
It became very clear to me after my divorce that every woman ought to be economically empowered because it is key to the social and political empowerment of any person. This is what spurned me into starting several businesses along the way with the help my husband. By 1987, I had grown my industrial garment manufacturing unit into the largest entity owned by a Malawian woman. It was at this point that I begun to worry about those that were not as brave and courageous to walk out of abusive relationships. So after I came back from a United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) sponsored study tour in the United States where I had an opportunity to interact with women organisations, I decided to start an organisation of business women. I consulted and shared my idea with friends and with the help of the principal secretary at the Ministry of Women and Community Services; the Commission of Women in Development and Small Enterprise Development Organisation of Malawi (Sedom), the organisation was legally registered in 1990. By 1999, we had managed to reach about 50 000 women with credit, information and training. We travelled countrywide and formed the largest and strongest rural women business organisation which we called the National Association of Business Women (NABW).
How far did this passion for women go?
I worked very hard in the women economic empowerment movement. In 1997, I received the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable end of Hunger. Nation Publicaitons Limited voted me Woman of the Year twice, in 1997 and 1998. I have gone out to receive numerous awards and for two years running in 2012 and 2013 Forbes Magazine named me as the most influential woman in Africa and ranked me 40th in the world and the sixth most powerful black woman in the world.
How did you get into politics? Did you ever dream of becoming a politician?
I was 51 years old. My husband was about to retire as chief justice. I realised I had worked tirelessly for humanity especially for women and children, but very little progress had been made because we still had laws that were negatively impacting on women and children. I convinced myself that whatever time I had remaining in my life, I would go and sit where the laws were being made and help change them. Today, when I look back, I feel proud that when I was elected Member of Parliament (MP) and appointed Minister of Gender, I fulfilled my wish to champion the passing of the Domestic Violence Bill. I will forever be grateful to women leaders such as Emma Kaliya from the Gender Network and Women Caucus in Parliament who joined me in this fight. We passed the bill in April 2006. I served as Minister of Gender for two years, Foreign Minister for three years, vice president for three years and president for two years.
Tell me about your push for safe-motherhood.
A few events in my life motivated me into the safe motherhood campaign. On January, 23, 1984, I gave birth to my fourth child and suffered what they call postpartum hemorrhage — an excessive loss of blood after birth. Dr Chiphangwi is the one who saved my life. Everyone of my friends and relatives thought that it was a miracle I survived. The other was when my best friend Chrissie failed to continue with her education because she had no school fees. I told myself that I was going to spend my life educating girls. The other factor was when I got out of an abusive home I made up my mind that I would spend my life fighting violence against women and economically empower women. That is why when I took the oath of office, I established two presidential initiatives namely; Presidential Initiative for Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Rights, and The Presidential Initiative for Poverty and Hunger Reduction. This was before I even appointed my Cabinet. I refuse to accept that a woman should die giving life. I am proud though that due to the initiatives that we implemented in my two years, we were able to reduce maternal deaths from 675 women dying by 100 000 deaths down to about 400. This achievement came about through the participation of chiefs at grassroots level and the private sector who constructed waiting shelters in hospitals. Us as Malawian women, we will forever be grateful for the support of our donors like United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and members of the private sector.
What has been your development agenda?
I founded the Joyce Banda Limited for profit, which runs the two schools in Chimwakhunda in Blantyre. In the year 2000, I established the Joyce Banda Foundation International. This is the developmental initiative which I consider as my contribution to my country. Under this initiative we do the following;
- Education:We look after 30,000 orphans in 30 orphan care centres providing bursary education and one meal everyday, We have a free secondary school in Domasi. We support about 2,000 students in universities both in Malawi and abroad and 34 students in technical schools.
- Economic Empowerment:We have over 500 000 market women who we helped set up businesses and 850 000 youths across the country.
You have helped change many lives, but what do you women need to achieve more?
Women are the single biggest threat to women leadership. We need to change. We need to stand united, we need to be each others keepers. When we get into leadership we push our fellow women to get into leadership positions. During my time I tried to do that and appointed several well-qualified women into positions of influence. I appointed a woman as chief justice, as Chief Secretary, as Solicitor General, two deputy Governors of the Reserve Bank, a deputy inspector general of Police and eight district commissioners. These women occupied the positions for the first time in the history of Malawi. The good news is that when we [women] get into leadership we take risks for the betterment of the lives of those we represent. I took a political risk when I devalued the kwacha, shut down Air Malawi because it became a drain on public resources and took on corruption, which had always existed, but had never been confronted head on. When we support each other into leadership, we must support each other to stay in those positions if we have to make any meaningful contributions to changing the lives of women and children who are the most vulnerable in our communities.
Any last words?
We need to know that for us to succeed, we need to work and engage our men. I have benefited a lot from the men in my team in both government and the party. Men are not our foes but, friends in the struggle. Thank you.