The Sunday Mail
Malawi’s former president Dr Joyce Banda was in Zimbabwe last week to launch a Southern Africa Development Initiators project to establish a smart village in Hwange, a concept she is spearheading in Malawi. The Sunday Mail Editor Victoria Ruzvidzo (VR) had a sit-down with her. Discussions ranged from women empowerment, rural development and the visible progress being made under the Second Republic, among other issues.
VR: Thank you for coming to Zimbabwe and gracing our country with your presence. What exactly was the purpose of your visit?
JB: I have spent 40 years on the development platform.
So much so that the ten years I was in public office, to me it was just a detour.
I was 31 when I started this work, to try and transform the lives of my fellow rural women.
I always say that it’s not realistic and it’s not fair that the rest of us, who are just 15 percent, have an opportunity to go to school and should be enjoying a better life when the majority are grassroots-based and are in abject poverty.
So, I felt that was my calling and that is what I have done all my adult life.
So here in Zimbabwe, a new organisation of young men and women mobilised themselves and decided that they would form what they call the Southern African Development Initiators (SADI) and they have seen the work in Malawi that I am doing, particularly now I am very busy in rural areas after leaving public office.
And the chosen area where they decided they wanted to go and replicate what we are doing in Malawi, an integrated project.
So that basically is what brought me here to Zimbabwe.
I have travelled to Hwange to do the groundbreaking ceremony.
It was a really life-changing experience for me.
VR: I know you are making a world of difference in this regard, so from your perspective, what are the solutions to achieving better rural life?
JB: I think first and foremost is political will.
The government of the country must decide that they are going to do something about the situation at the grassroots. But while they are doing that, there is no government in the world that can do it all. It is not possible.
So the best they can do is to create space for civil society and for NGOs that are development-oriented to go in and do their part. All those little pieces put together will make a difference for sure.
I am just fortunate that in my country, my president has opened up the space. Malawians know that for 40 years this is what I have done.
When I went into public office, into politics, it was the public that pushed me, that propelled me into those positions. This is where I was, where I am now.
So for me, I just believe that we must, or those of us who have the opportunity and the means, must rise and do something about the situation of our fellow people.
VR: That is very true. Do you have a dream where you see the situation changing sometime in future for Africa in general? We are known as a continent of the poor. Do you feel, with the kind of work you are doing and what others should do or are doing, that the situation will change soon?
JB: There will always be poor people. Even in America, they have poor people; and that is one of the most developed nations on earth.
But what I see, what my husband has told me in my 40 years of work, is that sometimes I feel discouraged, sometimes I hesitate and sometimes I am not sure whether I am making a difference. But my husband always says touching one life at a time matters.
So what I believe is that there are so many of us that can reach out. There is so much that we, even us as women, must do for the girl-child.
The reason why that is important is because I just finished a fellowship with the Woodrow Wilson Centre; I was serving there as a distinguished fellow in 2017/ 2018. During that time, in my research, I was looking at the participation of African women in leadership.
And I discovered that, yes, historically, we are one of the few continents on earth where women were leaders even before colonisation.
We have always been leaders; we have led our nations. In Ghana, there was the queen Asantewaa, who led her nation.
In fact, she resisted colonisation so they sent her away and she went to live in exile in Seychelles and died there.
So, we have always stood up as leaders.
If you research, you will find that, in fact, it is colonisation that set us back because some of those that colonised us did not know how to fit us in because of where they were coming from, women did not participate in leadership.
They didn’t know what to do with us.
What happened now is that in the ‘50s, when our brothers Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe, Kamuzu Banda, Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta, when they stood and said they were going to fight for self-rule, our women also rose to the occasion.
We have so many examples on the continent.
It was not because it was new, because we always knew that we were born to lead. Now, this research I was doing also revealed something further for me.
It is said that leaders are born, but only with 30 percent leadership traits. So, if you go to a typical village and see someone who has not even been to school, you can actually see that this person didn’t go to school but is a leader. Even in a choir at church you can tell that this is a leader.
With only 30 percent leadership traits, what society must do is to add the 70 percent – send the child to school, provide mentoring and nurturing to the child, providing a conducive environment for the child to flourish.
That is what forms the 70 percent. Then this person, Joyce Banda, who was born with 30 percent, this had to happen for her to end up with 100 percent as a leader.
Not only in a country but in any sector.
I am not saying that those without 30 percent cannot become leaders, but I have trained myself to know the difference between one that was born and one that was acquired and had to be trained.
So for me now, back to the question you asked, can we do it?
The tragedy is that we are losing because the majority of our people are locked up in abject poverty.
The majority of those girls and boys born with leadership traits will never go to school; they will never even know their gift. They will never know.
So it is Africa that is losing its scientists, doctors and teachers; and its Africa that is losing its leaders.
So, for me, when I say what we require is political will, I mean governments must put in place systems that help identify those future leaders, provide education systems, provide training systems and tertiary education, but the rest of us must also do our part to help our governments. To have what I call a harvest. Harvest! Harvest as many of those little girls and boys as possible.
VR: There is a lot of talk globally about women’s emancipation and empowerment, does Africa have the right energy to ensure it achieves that because the statistics are very poor and very low even globally. What is it that Africa must do for its women to be more empowered?
JB: I hope you know that Africa is doing better than most. Africa is doing better than America. But always remember that we are doing fine.
Because when we encourage ourselves, we shall do more. But if we dim our mood with statistics that are negative, then it is retrogressive.
VR: That is a very powerful statement.
JB: Yes! You must look at the positive. Your own daughter here, Dr Arikana Chihombori, she was among the AU ambassadors to the United States. So, in 2017, she organised an event to honour me and president Ellen Sirleaf (former Liberian president).
While there, she invited African women to attend, so these African women who were there, it was like a dialogue, one woman stood up and asked me, “Joyce Banda, I was born in Nigeria and I live in America and I go back and forth. You know the problem with Africa and the reason why it is not going to make any progress is that when I go, I mobilise women, let us walk, lets march, let us shout, lets demand for our rights but they are so passive, they are so scared they don’t do it.”
So I said, “Well, you live here, have you achieved equal pay for equal work in America?” No! “How many women are in your parliament here?” Only 18 percent!
“How many presidents have you had in the White House in America after 200 years of democracy?” None!
“I come from a continent and I hope you come from my continent too because you have told me that’s where you come from, we have six women presidents.”
And for those people who have done the research, they are saying there have been 22 women who have been maybe transitional leaders.
So we are talking about six women right now.
Vice presidents are two a penny from where I come from.
Here in America, you had the first vice president and you were rejoicing and celebrating.
Where I come from, they are two a penny.
So it’s factual, the country with the highest number of women in parliament is on this continent, its Rwanda.
The African Union has achieved parity – 50:50. And president after president now they are achieving parity. So are you telling me you are ahead of us here in America?
Learn from Africa, we have something that we are doing right.
So that is what some of us forget but because we have been told too much negative stuff about Africa, that doesn’t even occur.
But for me it occurs and when it occurs then I look at how we are having that happen.
And whatever we are doing to make that happen, to be better than America and other continents, we must continue to do and do it right.
So that’s my view.
VR: So, politically, who is Joyce Banda now?
JB: Joyce Banda is back on the development platform. What happened is I have been on the development platform for 40 years. So the political life that you know is 10 years.
So it’s like you are on the main road and you take a detour and you come back to the main road.
VR: So you are not involved in politics anymore?
JB: I am head of a political party. I am heading that party and that party has a succession plan because I shall never vie for political office again.
VR: It’s the People Party, right?
JB: Yes! So we are in the midst of our succession plan. Somebody younger must take over from me.
The current president (Chakwera) and I were campaigning in 2019 to go to State House. I had already presented my nomination papers and paid when the president then said why don’t you step aside. ‘You are older than me, madam, let’s work together. So, support me.’ And when I went out and told my followers, you know that for me, my constituency is the rural people, those are the ones I love.
I have always told people that leadership is like a love affair. You must fall in love with the people and the people must fall in love with you. For me it’s rural people.
So they wanted to know what is it I was going to do when I stepped aside?
So, I promised Malawians and my president, if you win and go to State House, I will help you.
I withdrew. I even handed the withdrawal publicly. Because if I had delayed for two weeks, I was going to be on the ballot paper.
I made an announcement and I stepped aside. And I told them that I will go back to rural areas and continue with my work.
So that is how I help my president and my country by doing what I used to do because I know how to do that well.
Because now with an international network that I have, it is even much easier.
So, right now, I am heading an organisation that I formed when the president won, which is an NGO, a community development initiative that is now implementing what I am calling smart villages.
And in this project, we are building 2 800 houses with an integrated programme taking a holistic approach.
I also believe that when you get into an area, you must address all their needs.
So, in this smart village, what we have is electricity, we must have environmental management, we must have clean water, and we must have food and nutrition security. So they must grow enough food. Then they must have microfinance, agribusiness, clean water, a school, a clinic and a church or mosque.
VR: That is very powerful. What are your thoughts about Zimbabwe and the progress the Second Republic has been making; and on women too?
JB: For me, I haven’t had the opportunity to look closely at what Zimbabwe is doing. All I can say is what I can see.
The first thing that caught my eye as I got out of the plane is that there is so much work at the airport. Those are striking issues for a visitor coming into a country for the first time.
So, I see beautiful roads and I see a beautiful people and I see smiling people. For me, that’s what matters.
But you know our presidents have been saying that we must have political diplomacy but what is also important is economic diplomacy.
We used to be one country at one time. We used to have one Head of State and the President (Mnangagwa) was reminding me yesterday that in fact, he used to live in this house (State House).
So at the back of my mind, it is the borders we have but what I have seen in the villages here, the challenges for our rural people are the same. So what we can do is work together. Find out what is it we can do together.
I mean we grow very beautiful rice in Malawi, but all the fruits that we eat, the apples, the oranges, we get them from Zimbabwe.
So there is so much that we, even at the local level, can do together.
We don’t eat politics, we eat food. So that is what we can do and the rest of us must help our governments to transform our economies, to transform the lives of the people at the grassroots and leave politics to politicians.
A whole generation that worries me, a whole generation will sit there and say the president is not doing enough for me and the minister is not doing enough for me.
They are not going to come to your house and transform your life. That was my upbringing. This age group that’s what we need to do; we work to earn and live a good life.
VR: Thank you so very much. Your last words for Zimbabwe.
JB: For me, the last words that I have is that women are the majority.
And the last time I checked they even brought the other half into this world.
So the best any government can do is recognise us.
And for my fellow women, we have our own style in Africa. We are master negotiators; I am talking about African women – master negotiators.
We realise our position, we have been leaders even before colonisation but we don’t get there by confronting our leaders, by fighting our leaders, by being antagonistic. That is not how we do it.
So instead of copying what works elsewhere, we must concentrate on what works here. Here in Africa what works is that we engage our men; talk to them and they talk to us.
So being rude doesn’t work.
VR: Thank you so very much for giving me this opportunity. Africa is really proud to have a daughter like you.
JB: Thank you! I leave today (last Wednesday). I will be at home for only one day before I proceed to UAE (United Arab Emirates) for other engagements.