She doesn’t look as tough as nails but she is. In fact, she looks good, all supple and soft as the next African woman, with the right curve in the right place. Fair, clear skin that leaves you wondering about her age bracket but that she puts paid to when she introduced her three children, all very grown up. Asked how she would describe herself, she put it quite simply, smiling: I’m an African woman. That she is, in more ways than one. Just that she is not your everyday African woman. Her name is Joyce Banda, yes the same one, Dr Joyce Banda, President of the Republic of Malawi, the second of the only two female presidents we have in Africa.
Clad in red and black boubou with a shawl sitting pat on her right shoulder (back in Malawi, that shawl is called Joyce Banda) and one simple string of pearls around her neck, you could actually mistake her for the woman next door. Until you look closely at her eyes. Even when her smile brightens her face, the eyes remain determined, like they are a different entity. Her eyes definitely are a window to her soul. Deep in them are etched her journey to the State House of Malawi. And the road was rough, bumpy, complete with attempts on her life. But she stood her ground, eyes focussed on her goal.
She introduced her husband, Justice Richard Banda. ‘He has been Minister of Justice in Swaziland and Malawi but I can tell you being First Gentleman of Malawi is his favourite job.’ Her husband smiled, shook his head at the jab.
A few jokes more and she went straight to the point.
‘African women don’t cry unless they have been watching Oprah.’ That sent us all laughing. ‘We do not cry and we cannot start now. That was what I told my daughter when she started sniffing and dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief because we did not pay her school fees on time. She was schooling in America and in that university if you failed to pay your school fees when it was due, your name went up on the notice board for all to see. She couldn’t imagine that happening to her with a Foreign Minister mum and Chief Justice dad. I asked her if she had been watching Oprah because an African woman has to do so much she has no time to cry. The challenges of an African woman are right there on her doorsteps when she wakes up. She meets them there.
‘The African woman has to deal with effects of climate change, much as a lot of people think it is an urban topic. She wants her children to have quality education. She wants her family to have access to good health care. She has to farm and take care of everybody.’
True, she has no time to be a drama queen or feel sorry for herself because after all the tears, her challenges would still be sitting pretty on her doorstep. Madam President had to live with hers until, dry-eyed, she found a solution to it.
For two years as a minister, she was not invited to Cabinet meetings. As far as her boss and former President Bingu wa Mutharika was concerned, Banda was in the dog house. She was in political Siberia, excommunicated in a government she was supposed to be part of.
‘I was ostracized for two years and not invited to Cabinet because I objected to the former President’s decision to promote his brother. My official vehicles were withdrawn but I stood my ground.’
She remembers the day after her official cars were withdrawn, with a grimace.
‘Of all the pains I have had to endure as a female politician, it is the newspaper cartoons that still get to me all the time. I have failed miserably to get used to it. My husband tells me all the time to see the humour in it but I can’t. The day after my official cars were ordered withdrawn, one of the newspapers had a cartoon with me in a push-bike with the ‘village rat’ asking the ‘town rat’ what I was doing in a push-bike and the town rat replied that the push-bike was my new official means of transport. I didn’t find it funny.’
Well, the system wasn’t done with her. Since Mrs Banda refused to read the handwriting on the wall even with two years in political dog house and a ‘push-bike’ official car, an attempt was made on her life. She neither cried nor quit. Finally, realizing that there was no killing this beetle, Joyce Banda was expelled from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). And unlike most female politicians in recent or ancient African history, Banda formed a new party. No, she did not join the opposition or retire from politics. She simply dusted herself and formed the Peoples Party (PP). Then nature stepped in. Mr Mutharika died and in accordance with the laws of Malawi, Banda was sworn in as President of Malawi.
She promptly rolled up her sleeves, determined to make a difference. First, she sold the Presidential jet, wowing everybody within and outside Malawi. That she followed with an uncommon fight against corruption.
In her words: ‘ I am determined to ensure that Malawi does not become another example of a failed democracy. A failed democracy is where political office holders get into office and forget the people. I am determined to wean Malawi from donor dependency. I devalued the Malawian currency by 49 per cent and I am running a government that is fighting corruption on all fronts because someone has to do it. I know when you fight corruption, it fights back but that is not reason enough to fold my arms and do nothing.’
And she certainly is doing something in spite of threat to life and limbs.
‘I gave the ministers four months to tighten Malawian finances. So far, we have arrested 68 persons. We have frozen 33 accounts and repossessed houses their owners couldn’t explain.’
After unleashing different strains of blackmail on Banda, the league of corrupt men started moving their loot. They moved their monies from the bank to the houses and when Banda started searching the houses, they moved their bags of loot to their offices and then to the trunks of their cars when the offices became too hot.
‘We simply followed the money. Now I hear they are burying their loot.’ She said with the smug smile of a General sure of victory. With less than six months to election, she is still fighting the monster knowing full well she runs a risk of not getting re-elected because of her anti-corruption battle.
Her final words tell you this is one woman not spun from the regular African political wool.
‘Some African leaders have told me I’m out of my mind but even if I do not get re-elected, Malawians now know that corruption can be fought and corrupt people can go to jail.’
That is all the reward she cares for.
President Joyce Banda was the keynote speaker at the 14th session of Emmanuel Onyechere Osigwe Anyiam-Osigwe lecture series which took place last week in Lagos.