There have only been three female presidents of African countries, and one of them visited a Prince George’s County church on June 17 during her trip to the United States.
Joyce Banda, Malawi’s first woman president and an unyielding women’s right leader, was honored by the Greater Mt. Nebo Church in Bowie. The church awarded Banda the 2012 Living Hope Award to add to her list of accolades.
She’d been to the church before to gain support for her Joyce Banda Foundation, a primary and secondary school that she said taught 650,000 young people since it was founded in 1997, and was welcomed back with open arms by Reverend Jonathan L. Weaver and the congregation.
“Pastor Weaver and his wife have stood by me throughout difficult times,” said Banda of the church’s leader. “I was looking for support for the Joyce Banda foundation. I just wanted to see as many girls in school as possible and I was told this church supports projects in Africa.”
But while Sunday was a time for celebration – nine students were awarded college scholarships and the first female King of a Ghana village, Peggy Bartels, also sat in the first row of the sanctuary – Banda expressed the pressure that came with her abrupt call to rule.
Banda was sworn in as Malawi’s new president after the sudden death of President Bingu Wa Mutharika; she was his vice president. They ran for office in 2009, and Banda said she knew she’d earn the women’s vote because of her tireless campaigns for women’s activism. She dedicated one of her presidential initiatives to maternal health, and she founded the National Association of Business Women in 1990, which she said trained over 110,000 women to manage small businesses.
Mutharika reportedly died from cardiac arrest complications in early April. According to some Malawian news reports, the Cabinet tried for 48 hours to find a loophole that would prevent Banda from becoming chief officer.
The Malawian government honored the Constitution and swore Banda in on April 7. Prior to that, her relationship with Mutharika was ruined when he tried to groom his brother to be the next president. She said she was mistreated as vice president, being booted from the ruling party of the Democratic People’s Party, thus creating the People’s Party, and cast out from the first class lounge during airport visits.
“Our democracy has matured; Africa may have decided that they are willing to give equal opportunities for women to run for office,” said Banda followed by booming congregation applause.
Already, Banda has fired a police chief who allegedly mishandled last year’s anti-government riots that led to 19 civilian deaths, according to BBC News. She is trying to repeal the nation’s ban on homosexual activities. She is also trying to mend foreign policy rifts with the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
Malawi, an underdeveloped African republic, struggles with fuel, foreign aid, and commodities such as sugar, according to reports. Aside from tackling the country’s ample burdens, Banda is fending off physical threats, even though she has received support from both Malawian men and women.
“Reverend Weaver and my sister started to get concerned about my safety in Malawi when there was an attempt on my life,” said Banda. She said she was told she should leave but refused. “During my fears of abuse, what God did was give me the courage to say against all odds that I will take advantage of the opportunity to help as many people as possible.”
The church she calls a “home away from home” provided Banda aid in the form of a $1,000 donation for the Joyce Banda foundation.
“I think President Joyce Banda and King Peggy personified what it means to not let titles alter their personhood,” said Weaver of the pair of African leaders. “These women understand what it means to be women of influence.”
Banda thanked the church for standing by her side as she continues on the unexpected presidential journey she plans to execute with full force.