Road to JB, a woman in Malawi—a narrative of perspectives


Women leaders are not a strange breed in Malawi’s politics. They are not about to get extinct either. Clearly though, it has been a tough and rough ride to attain any meaningful role in a ruling party as well as the opposition.

The cards are simply stacked against women. Official records will show that the struggle for independence that culminated in victory of colonialism in 1963 with Kamuzu Banda as Prime Minister and a year later in 1964 as President, women have played a central role but grudgingly acknowledged.

Although there is no mention of the role women played in the 1915 John Chilembwe uprising, it does not mean they were not active patriots. Lions get aggressive when they have the full support of their spouses.

The better known women leaders, before, during and after the struggle for independence were Rose Chibambo, Vera Chirwa, Mai Mlanga and Mai Fenny Sadyalunda among others.

President Banda

They represented a progressive country, proud and ambitious. They were outstanding leaders. Chibambo was to become Kamuzu’s arch-enemy woman leader. She topped the hit list of rebels targeted for execution, assassination and extrajudicial killings. She outwitted Kamuzu and lived in exile for close to 40 years.

Vera and her husband Orton Chirwa surrendered the leadership of the Nyasaland African Congress to Kamuzu. Despite the gesture of reverence, the couple was hounded out of the country. A twist of fate lured the entire family into a trap and they were abducted back home.

Vera and Orton were tried before a kangaroo court called the Traditional Court where the state used political perceptions rather than facts to get a conviction. The court hanged Albert Muwalo Nqumayo, imprisoned Gwanda Chakuamba for 22 years and jailed Vera and Orton Chirwa for life, all of them on tramped up charges.

During the court sessions, students, pupils and it seemed, the entire city of Blantyre, congregated at Soche Traditional Court. The people were clearly supporting the two freedom fighters they had heard so much about but never seen.

Vera handled herself with dignity, courageously rebuffing the state lawyers and the presiding village chief who was presiding judge. They became more popular by the day. It would be the last time the state would bring a case of treason to the court or any other court.

As the agitation heated up towards the close of the 1980s and rolled into the 1990s, Orton died. He died knowing his dream of a better and democratic Malawi was a matter of time. In 1994, Malawi ushered in a multiparty system of government and Kamuzu was sent into unexpected retirement, divested of the aura of immortality.

Mai Mlanga was a great leader. She was adept at organizing women and youth for the Malawi Congress Party. She threw herself everything into getting the people behind Kamuzu, to believe they were as good, if not better than the white colonials and reconciling the two opposing sides of Malawians. The side that had faith and the other that was sceptical of an African to build a nation.

However, Mai Mlanga fell out of favour and was barred from attending party meetings or travel about. This was before it became known as house arrest. She was finished, in the political-speak of the day, quite literally, dead and buried.

Mai Fenny Sadyalunda went through hell. The government-run MBC and the party-run The Daily Times went supersonic in a campaign never seen before then. It seemed every five minutes Mai Sadyalunda was being castigated but without any real substance except the catch-all phrase party discipline. It was deliberately tailored to create innuendo and innuendo there was.

As customary, she was not given a chance to be heard but you cannot put down a good person, as they say. The more she was insulted, the more she became better known.

The heaviest blow dealt to Kamuzu in recent memory came from his own favourite woman leader. Mai Florence Tsamwa did not need an appointment to see the Ngwazi.

Her word was as good as a command. Despite this enormous influence Mai Tsamwa was not known to pull her rank or abuse her office. She was a strict observer of the perking order. You perk two to your right and no more than one to the left.

In other words, as chairperson of a committee, she could only question the upper committee and fight her Vice Chairperson or Secretary. Otherwise to do anything to the contrary would be regarded as bullying. She was no bully.

She would not be bullied, as Hon John Tembo in company with other senior party officials discovered to their embarrassment during what seemed to be an impromptu encounter on a rare MBC radio talk programme and the only one on matters of such gravity.

In 1981, Malawi and in particular, Southern Region, was hit by a disastrous maize shortage. There was hunger all over the place. Mai Tsamwa and her women colleagues confirmed it with observations of their own where people in and around Blantyre were surviving on mangoes or go to bed on empty bellies.

The men marshalled by Hon Tembo attempted to mount a counter-offensive. It was futile they may have wished they had not taken that direction.

They argued that there was maize readily available in Mulanje. They said they had purchased the maize and taken it for sale in Blantyre, which implied that there was no such thing as mass starvation as argued by Mai Tsamwa.

Incensed by the remarks, Mai Tsamwa literally chewed the men to bits and pieces. She charged that in fact, the maize the men were talking about was from Mozambique which is sold to buyers along the border. It was not Malawi maize. There was no maize in Malawi.

What’s more, the maize the Honourables were talking about was not sold in Blantyre because the prices were lower, not necessarily affordable by the non-cash-based society, the way Kamuzu wanted it.

The maize was loaded on to trucks all 421km to Mchinji. People in Mchinji famed for loads of cash, could not afford it either. The maize was especially targeted for the Zambians who were also starving. Among the sellers and transporters was this group of Honourables.

Mai Tsamwa lived to tell the tale. However, she still had another sting left in her. When the government announced that three cabinet ministers, Aaron Gadama, Dick Matenje, John Twaibu Sangala and a Member of Parliament David Chiwanga had rebelled against Kamuzu and were running away, not one Malawian dead or alive, if that is possible, believed it.

Instantly everyone, including babies knew the four gentlemen had been killed. There was a heavy gloom over the nation. Everyone was waiting for something to happen. It never did but Mai Tsamwa demonstrated her courage, fearlessly travelling to Ntcheu where Hon Matenje would be laid at rest.

Matenje was her favourite party official and she called him son when he was alive and in death. She was the most hurt by his death and its circumstances. She wept her eyes out. She wailed, mourned and grieved without reservation.

Mai Tsamwa said she knew who had killed his son and his friends. The police arrived and forced her back to Blantyre. The people ignored police orders not to undress or wash the body. They found bullet holes and spent ammunition in the wounds caked with dried blood.

Kamuzu’s Big Government and its central command economy aggravated the impact. The unstated but widely accepted policy of the time was to deny the people economic participation and financial independence.

It was in belief that to do otherwise, an enabling economic environment that would follow could instigate an uprising against his government which was in throes over his successor.

Some said Mama C. Tamanda Kadzamira would be President and Tembo, her uncle, would be Prime Minister. Others thought it was vice versa. It a confusion similar to that which befell the builders of the Tower of Babel only deadly to be heard by the thought police comprising party militias and the secret service of the police state which Malawi had grown to be.

Terrified of sudden death, men would plead with their spouses, daughters and other women in politics to compose a crafty song that implored upon Kamuzu to give them respite from the hardships they encountered every day, lack of cash, expensive food, slash conditions at the work place, unemployment and so on which they often did.

In the multiparty era, women have no lesser obstacles to be recognized for their leadership. In fact, the more, it appears that the country is on a march forward, the more enemies of progress pretend they are cannot see.

For instance, a woman banker was routinely and devilishly harassed by a mercenary newspaper for no apparent reason. Emmie Chanika, a civic leader and commissioner in the Mwanza Road Accident inquiry that attempted to get to the bottom of the cause of death of the three cabinet ministers and a Member of Parliament was persecuted by the UDF.

She was beaten up in full view of uniformed police officers at a Parliamentary and Presidential elections tallying centre in Blantyre. There could be many more women leaders who have similarly suffered but in silence.

However, in living memory, the persecution of Mai Joyce Banda, ranks as the worst example of an atrocious and uncalled for aggression against innocent women manifested in the new President.
Mai Banda was Vice President to President Bing wa Mutharika from 2009. Her appointment was received with enormous fanfare. She was the first woman to occupy such a high position in Malawi. Women had, indeed, risen to be embraced as equals or so it was thought.

However, she soon came face to face with a defining moment. The obsolete concoction of rule called constructive resignation by an Attorney General failed. It was intended to force officials out of positions held in trust of the electorate by a leader with an evil eye.

Mai Banda was persecuted, harangued and mobbed at every step. She resigned from the DPP to form the Peoples Party. Government spent tonnes of cash to disenable her. Its officials lived a life of fugitives in their own land. The state took away her benefits as vice President. Not once did she waver.

Boldly, Mai Banda braved the searing Maula Prison heat to walk a kilometre to visit fellow opposition leader Atupele Muluzi when the zombie police impounded her vehicle in a desperate bid to stop her solidarity match.

Like others before her in similar situations, her popularity grew and grew. The people saw in Mai Banda a reflection of their lives which was not much to talk about.

They saw she shared and knew the pain, disappointment and hopelessness that had befallen the country in just a short 18 years of the democratic experiment. They were being treated worse than third class citizens by their own son of the soil.

It has dawned on many that the nostalgia peppered memories, although not many could remember a white man ruling the country, had been encapsulated in that one name Nyasaland or simply Nyasa. It was a denial, refuge and weakness in the face of a system that devours its children.

To be sure, Mai Joyce Banda is no stranger to any Malawian, even to the people who have had no direct contact with her. The mention of her name rekindles memories of the National Association of Business Women or Nabw.

Thousands of women and men have added to the quality of life with the business expertise and soft loans. This was before anyone or any institution gathered the courage to lend to the poor of the poorest. Not even the local banks had the pluck to lend to local people other than Asians and Europeans dotted with a few assimilated Malawians for local colour.

Thousands of boys and girls have been given a new deal in life with the Joyce Banda Foundation Schools. This began long before government acknowledged the challenges of education for the less fortunate and orphans in Malawi.

Mai Banda was probably one of the first if not the first Malawians of any gender to run a poultry farm as a business. Thousands of people have received benefits from her revolving programme that donate chickens, knowledge and skill to people to embark on the way to financial independence.

A strong believer in the power of God, Mai Banda deserves what she has had and what she was before and what she has and what is now.

There is no doubt that she will combine well the role of mother to her children, wife to her husband Justice Richard Banda Rtd and President of Malawi to citizens, residents and visitors.

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