When 26-year-old Joyce Banda boarded a plane to Nairobi in 1975, she did not know that she was embarking on a journey that would not only see her leave her abusive marriage, but also bring her to the highest office in the land, albeit three and half decades later.
Ms Banda became Malawi’s president last week following the death of Mr Bingu wa Mutharika, who had led the southern African country since 2004.
Acquiescent and dutiful, the mother of three had flown to join her husband Geoffrey Kachale, who was working at the Malawian embassy in Kenya.
“I think it all started out when I went to live in Kenya, because that is the time they declared the decade for women, 1975. I didn’t realise at that time that I was locked up in an abusive marriage. As an African woman, I had been brought up to believe that, that was normal, that if you are in a marriage there is nothing too much for you to bear, you can tolerate anything, you can live with anything, until I went to Kenya,” she told the Harvard Gazette in March last year.
Her sojourn in Kenya coincided with the golden era of renowned women empowerment crusaders led by Mrs Jane Kiano, Prof Miriam Were, Dr Julia Ojiambo, Ms Nyiva Mwendwa and Ms Wilkista Onsando.
The African Women and Child Feature Service executive director, Ms Rosemary Okello-Orlale, interacted with Ms Banda at many forums on gender equality.
Ms Okello-Orlale described Ms Banda as a forthright, firm, principled and dedicated woman.
She praised Ms Banda for refusing to stand down in favour of Mr Mutharika’s brother.
“Despite her firmness, she is a motherly and cordial person who is at home with everybody. She always credited Kenya for being a part of her life,” Ms Okello-Orlale told the Saturday Nation.
“I just thank God because I was at the right place at the right time… for the first time in my life, I began to hear words like violence against women, abuse, women in development, gender-based violence, gender equality. I didn’t even know as an African woman you could begin to think about being equal to anybody,” Ms Banda said.
The stage for her as a woman activist and politician was set in 1981, following the end of her husband’s diplomatic stint in Nairobi.
On returning to Malawi, and with her newly-minted courage, she left her husband, started a garment manufacturing business and later found Malawi’s National Association of Business Women (NABW).
Her visit to the United States further fuelled the fire that had been ignited in Nairobi.
She was inspired by an American women’s business organisation to start a small group of women to push the government for equal business opportunities in Malawi.
However, the small group turned into a big organisation. Today, NABW assists more than 20,000 women to set up businesses.
“By the time I went back home, I had made up my mind that the way I was going to reach out was to get maybe 100 women together, form a network, act as a pressure group to push the government for equal opportunity in business. I didn’t have the slightest idea that what I was starting was going to be a revolution,” said Ms Banda, who is also the patron of the Joyce Banda Foundation, a charity that assists disadvantaged children through education.
Ms Banda earned the nickname, mandasi seller because of her quest to empower small-scale business women.
Ms Banda went into active politics in 1999, winning a parliamentary seat under the former ruling United Democratic Front party ticket.
Once in, she held a number of Cabinet posts under both presidents Bakili Muluzi and Mutharika.
From there, her journey to the top, becoming the country’s first female vice-president three years ago, could not be stopped.
Not even a sack from the ruling party by Mr Mutharika could succeed in dimming Ms Banda’s star. She had refused to endorse Mutharika’s brother as the preferred candidate to succeed in 2014.