Earlier this year, I was deeply moved by Theo Sowa’s TEDxChange talk calling for more African women leaders. She argued that while the issues that African women face are an explicit part of the global conversation, the African women themselves are not.
Joyce Banda, the president of Malawi, is one of the few African women who does have a platform, and her special brand of leadership makes a strong case for why Theo Sowa is right and it’s important for there to be more women leaders like her. So much of President Banda’s leadership style has been shaped by her own experience of the hardships of her country. I believe that this has strengthened her ability to be an effective advocate for her country today.
I just visited Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, and President Banda invited a group of traditional chiefs and experts on women’s health and family planning to talk with me. During the discussion, she spoke candidly about experiences that changed her life and still motivate her now to fight for big changes in her country.
One story that stuck with me and gave me a greater understanding of why she continues to be motivated to create change for her country was about her father and how he placed such emphasis on her education as a child.
Traditionally, in southern Malawi where President Banda was born, the grandmother raises the first born child. Her father, a policeman, wanted a say in bringing Joyce up, because he wanted her to have an education. Her grandmother responded, “Why would she want an education, when I’ll teach her everything she needs to know to be a good wife?” After much discussion, they agreed a compromise. During the week, she would be with her father in the town, and during the weekends with her grandmother in the village.
During her weekends in the village, she made a friend who would meet her every Friday as she arrived. They grew up together comparing life in the town and village. When it came time to go to high school, they were both offered places in the top schools in Malawi.
President Banda was surprised to hear that her friend would not be taking the place because her father refused to pay the nominal fee. “I still get angry about it every time I think of it,” President Banda said with tears in her eyes.
From that day she vowed to fight for the rights of girls and women. Her friend got married at 16, has eight children, and lives in the same village where they met. That could have been President Banda if her grandmother had her way.
Many of the stories President Banda tells make it perfectly clear why Theo is right and why we need more women leaders for Africa. The line that resonated with me most from my meeting with President Banda was her answer to a question about why she feels called to leadership:
“We as women are the ones who keep this continent of Africa ticking. We grow the food, we look after the income, we look after the family, we give birth, we die to give birth.”