Joyce Banda, a Strong New President for Malawi

“Joyce is positive and forward thinking. She will be a great leader for Malawi, and she will need support.” That’s what Marie Kagaju Laugharn from the Santa Cruz County Women’s Commission said last week about Joyce Banda, the new President of Malawi. Kagaju Laugharn met Banda when she visited the Monterey Bay area last year and they’ve stayed in touch since then. At that time, Banda was the Vice President of Malawi. Kagaju Laugharn says, “Joyce was going through rough times. I recall her close friend, Joe Richie who arranged Banda's visit, saying, when you go back you will either be killed or the next president of Malawi.” President Mutharika was becoming increasingly autocratic. He was soon to be term-limited out and was hoping for his younger brother to replace him. Kagaju Laugharn remembers that Banda continued to receive threats to her life and of imprisonment upon her return to Malawi for refusing to follow Mutharika’s wishes. She was fired from the political party, but remained in her elected position.

When Mutharika suddenly died earlier this month, Banda was sworn in as President. She is now the first female head of state in Southern Africa and the second female leader of Africa, joining the ranks of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia. Banda is recognized as a strong leader who comes from the grassroots. She’s a champion for young women’s leadership, education, and economic empowerment. Her willingness to openly talk about her experiences in an abusive marriage and her decision to leave it, have made her a strong advocate for women’s rights. She has support from many in Malawi, which she’ll need to win back international partners Mutharika alienated and to improve Malawi’s struggling economy.

Firelight funds 17 grassroots groups in Malawi. As we talked with some of them this week, we heard enthusiasm and a strong will to support Banda. Our in-country resource people are excited about this promising development, yet concerned about the high expectations that people have put on the new president. Banda is taking the helm of a country that has been in crisis, with shortages of fuel and other commodities. The task ahead of her is immense. Yet, her spirit is strong.

Already, Banda has worked to bring all parties together. During her swearing in she expressed a positive outlook, saying, “I want all of us to move into the future with hope and a spirit of unity.” Kagaju Laugharn says, “We set good examples by having women leaders in Africa, and everywhere.”

It is our hope that Banda and other key players, both within and outside of Malawi, will work together to realize a brighter future for Malawi and its children.