An Interview with Joyce Banda
Her Excellency Dr. Joyce Banda served as the President of Malawi from April 2012 to May 2014, ascending to that office from the vice-presidency upon the death of then-president Bingu wa Muthrika. She is also a grassroots women’s rights and education activist, and has turned her attention towards humanitarian efforts since leaving office, and is the founder of the Joyce Banda Foundation. Banda was Malawi’s first female president, and was named by Forbes as the most powerful woman in Africa in 2014.
Kyle Dontoh: Madam President, thank you so much for interviewing with us. I’d like to first start with your childhood. What experiences did you have that pushed you towards public service and charitable work?
Joyce Banda: In my tradition, the grandmother brings up the first granddaughter. In fact, you take your grandmother’s name. If a grandmother died early, you’d become the matriarch, no matter what age you were. Even your own mother would call you “mom”— my own mother called me “mom.” It pushes you towards responsibility.
In my case, we went into the hospital when I was born, and there was a white midwife, a British woman, who had come to establish a clinic in that area. The midwife asks my grandmother, “What is the name of this child?” and my grandmother says in response, “What is your name?” Her name was Joyce.
She told me later that she looked at the midwife, at her imposing personality, her uniform, the fact that she had the ability to deliver babies, that she was able to run this hospital, and it straight away it occurred to her that if I took that name I would become someone like that.
KD: Someone strong.
The second influence was my grandmother, who was a very, very strong woman — self-reliant. I don’t remember any time in her life when she was not selling something: groundnuts, fish, sugar cane, tomatoes… Whenever I went home she’d give me that to go and sell. So for me, from a very early age, you needed to make your own money.
She also influenced me in the sense that because she was able to make money, she employed men. So she was always in charge — but she was not afraid of working with men under her. And people from the village used to always come to her household because she had everything — they’d just walk in, cook food and eat, so I grew up with a grandmother who was very generous to the underprivileged.
KD: What experiences led you to want to work on women’s issues specifically?
JB: I had a good friend, Chrissy, who was a year older than me. When she didn’t have enough food at home, we would go and get some from my grandmother’s house, whether my grandmother had given permission or not, to ensure that she had sugar, she had tea, at home.
She was bright, brighter than me. She went to the village school; I went to the urban school. When we got to the end of primary school, she was selected to one of the best girls’ schools in Malawi, and so was I. We went to school, and at the end of term we went back to two different towns. The next term, I went back – but she did not. And as I sit here, she is exactly where I left her, by the road. And just last week, she lost her first child, who was born when she was fourteen. This story really influenced my life insofar as girls’ education is concerned, and insofar as gender-based violence is concerned.
Another really important experience for me was the day I gave birth, the 23rd of January, 1984. I went into hospital, and suffered what was known as a postpartum hemorrhage. In Africa you have all these superstitions, and to suffer from a postpartum hemorrhage means you’re bleeding and cannot stop, so maybe you’ve been bewitched, and you would bleed to death. In my case my husband was able to get hold of a gynecologist he knew, who wheeled me to the [operating] theatre and stopped the bleeding, and here I am.
So my fight against maternal mortality is rooted in the fact that I could have died, but I didn’t die. Why? Because my husband knew that gynaecologist. And yet, there are all the women whose husbands do not know gynecologists—who die.
KD: And here you stand.
JB: And here I am.
KD: So, for those reasons, you not only went into charitable work and started your foundation, but you also went into politics, and you moved up quite quickly. What was your motivation for going into politics?
JB: Between 1981 and 2004, I was in the civil society. I spent most of my time looking at what wasn’t going right. In fact, the day that I went into office, instead of sitting behind the minister’s chair, I sat on the other side [in the gallery], because that’s where I had been sitting, every time I went to fight with him, the minister.
Suddenly, there was an opportunity for me. My husband, who was Chief Justice at time, was retiring, and I said to him, “well perhaps, having seen that I’ve done all this and it doesn’t seem to make any difference, I feel that it is the laws that are having a negative impact on women and children. Therefore, I need to go to Parliament and sit where the laws are made, and help pass laws that help women, and children.”
So I went to Parliament. Fortunately for me, immediately after I was elected, I was also appointed Minister of Women and Child Development. So once I got to Parliament, straight away I championed the passage of the Domestic Violence Bill, in 2006. Then my President appointed me Foreign Minister, and the rest is what you said – Foreign Minister, Vice President, then to President of my country.
KD: A very rapid rise.
As President, you have stressed that one of the keys to economic growth istrade partnerships, as opposed to aid. But Malawi is a country that is a large aid recipient, with up to 40 percent of the government’s budget, at times, being contributed by foreign aid donors. So how do you feel about the relationship between aid donors and the Malawian government, how would you characterise that relationship?
JB: I think it is tragic that we have been dependent on aid for so long. Sometimes I get a feeling that even the aid-givers, they like it when we get aid, because we are dependent. So we never get to build the sort of true independence that we require, because political independence cannot be complete if there is no economic independence.
It is as if I tell you that you can’t run my life, but tomorrow I come to beg you for food. You would say, “hmph!” So it is a very awkward situation. So what I have always said that what we need is “trade, not aid.”
So when you are getting into office and finding the economy is in a state of collapse, in disrepair, and I found there was no fuel for a day, there was no foreign exchange – forex – for imports, there was only money for a week. Companies were only operating at 35 percent of capacity. All this, you can verify. Companies were operating at 35 percent, because they were operating at 35 percent; they were closing down, scaling down, and laying people off.
When I came into office, two million people did not have food. And so there was so much anger with the previous government – this government now, was the same government then – which had just killed twenty protesters. The president had been given 60 days to resign or call for a referendum, on whether people wanted him to stay. He died before the 60 days was up.
So my first task was to run around to assure the people that we would repair the economy. They were off-track when I came in, with the IMF [International Monetary Fund] program. The currency had gone under, the rate was fixed, so the black market was where you bought the actual position, the actual rate. So all that had to be corrected. During my first 100 days, that fuel was back, forex was back, companies started operating again, and we were back on track with the IMF. I had devalued the currency by 33 percent, because it was necessary, but then, the World Bank had also given us money to cushion that shock.
So indeed, what you were saying, how can a country rely for 40 percent on donors—we don’t have to! Because our country, we have just discovered, is very rich! We have gold, we have titanium, we have rare earths, we have oil, we have gas, we have bauxite. If only we can exploit these minerals, Malawi would not be in a position where they would need these donors.
KD: I want to ask about the role of Chinese investment in Malawi. There has been a great deal of investment in Malawi by China’s government and Chinese companies: What do you think about this relationship? And what about the relationship with the U.S., in light of the U.S.-Africa Summit back in August, which many people saw as the United States finally waking up to the fact that they have been “left behind” in Africa?
JB: I truly believe that the relationship, between China and Malawi, versus that between the West and Malawi, need to be treated separately. The relationship between the West and Malawi, and maybe America and Malawi, is based on aid and grants, while the relationship between China and Malawi is based on loans. The Chinese insist that they are developing their own country, so they cannot give anything for free.
So the relationship differs for each country. But what I have always said is that we should leave them separate. The reason why African countries find the Chinese money easy, and attractive, is because there is not the same amount of bureaucracy, and they’re not tied with other things. “You want a check to build a road? You will pay 2 percent interest one day, but here is the check, now.” So while you are still talking to America, for a road, for five years, you’ve turned to the Chinese and the road is already finished. That is the attraction: A lack of strings. And that is what the Americans are saying they have a problem with, because sometimes governance issues are omitted when it is Chinese money.
You will find that more African countries are developing at a very fast rate, because the Chinese have come in. Is that a bad thing? Well, that is something countries need to consider, because in Malawi, it was the last Parliament, the prior sitting, that said, “don’t borrow too much, because at the end of the day our children shall pay.” So there are all those considerations to be made, but I find that the Americans are indeed trying to race with the Chinese, and it is totally unnecessary. For me, it is unnecessary because, we just need to establish smart partnerships. We need to ensure that the American government are doing things so that those African countries are satisfied, yes. But to compare this with another country is not fair.
KD: Changing topics, we have heard a lot about communicable diseases in Africa as of late – Ebola, which has taken a lot of attention now, but also malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis. With Ebola, people have focused on external intervention, whether or not the US is doing enough financially, in terms of providing equipment, medicine, so forth. But we haven’t seen much from the continent itself in terms of supplies, medicine, or, importantly, research towards a permanent solution. In your view, what is the way forward for research in Africa, for fighting these diseases, and how would this be funded, and who should facilitate such efforts?
JB: The biggest problem we have in Malawi is public health. Weak, weak institutions, across Africa. But as far as Ebola, and other diseases, are concerned, it is also the time it took to respond. I saw a report, just today, that said that these countries in West Africa were warned as early as April to watch Ebola. Then, it was just one to two cases. By the time they addressed it, the situation was out of hand. But we must also remember that the WHO was also too late.
I don’t know what would happen if Ebola got into Malawi. I was in South Africa two months ago, and I was impressed with how prepared they are. The day I was leaving, they were distributing, in every hospital, the decontamination equipment, quarantine suits, all in case it came into the country. That is what is required, all across Africa. But you know, it’s all about political will, who is sitting in the driver’s seat. Moving forward, some leaders are thinking about what might happen, others are not.
It’s all about the country’s priorities. By the way, Nigeria has not done very badly. We bash Nigeria for other things, that they’re not doing well, but in the case of Ebola, we must applaud Nigeria, for moving fast to contain the disease. So it is about political will.
KD: Perhaps the things you are most well-known for in West, in the United States, in Europe, are your actions concerning homosexuality, which earned you praise around the world, but criticism at home, and you have said that this is an issue that has received undue focus and has been misunderstood. I wanted to ask you in person, then, what do you have to say about this issue?
JB: I would say, yes, it has been misunderstood. I have no power whatsoever to change any law in Malawi. It is very unfortunate, because it overshadows most other issues. I never said “let us repeal it,” but rather, I passed it on to the people to make a decision. So the debate went on, and it is still going on. Instead of me being the one to say “this is the position we should take,” I passed it on to the people. Because at the end of the day, it is the people who pass the law.
What I said, in Parliament, was that they should take it to the people, debate it, and bring it back to Parliament. It did not come back to Parliament. What was very clear, in the end, was that the people were not prepared to change the law, or even to debate changing the law. It would be very difficult to do that.
But I hope you know what is going on in South Africa and elsewhere, where they are actually killing them. Which is very unfortunate. But that is the situation. It is a matter that the people would not even discuss in most African countries. But it is a debate I started and a debate that is still going on.
KD: One final question: Would you see yourself ever returning to public life, public service? Is this something you would do?
JB: It’s difficult for me to say no; it’s too early. But I think this, what we are doing now, matters more to me, than public office. But, it’s too early for me to write that off—we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. •