Malawian President Joyce Banda, 64, is a complex and compelling figure. Some praise her as courageous and caring and refer to her as “our mother.”

Others see her as just another power-hungry politician protecting corrupt allies. Born in the southern village of Malemia to a police officer’s family, Banda speaks regularly about her childhood friend, Chrissie.

“I saw Chrissie every weekend as we made our way through childhood. … We finally came together as students in secondary school.

“Sadly, Chrissie studied with me for only one term as her parents could not afford the school fee of six dollars. She returned to her village, married early and had more than half a dozen children.

“She lives there still, locked in poverty. My parents, on the other hand, could afford the school fees.”

Banda started her professional life as a secretary. While she climbed up in society, establishing several businesses, she began to work to help the likes of Chrissie.

“I have always looked up to Joyce Banda,” says Towera Jalakasi, who joined the National Association of Businesswomen (NABW) in 2010, 19 years after Banda founded it.

“She has been a role model, even for rural women,” says Jalakasi, who now chairs the NABW, which has provided professional training or given loans to tens of thousands of start-up or established businesswomen.

Banda has also launched a string of other initiatives to empower women economically and to educate orphans. Her crusade has been motivated partly by her first marriage. She left a husband whom she has described as abusive in 1981, taking their three children with her.

She is now married to Richard Banda, retired from the office of chief justice, with whom she has two children. She says he supports her career.

Banda – who holds degrees in early childhood education and gender studies from online universities in the United States – won a parliamentary seat in 1999. She later held cabinet posts as minister of gender and community services and as foreign minister.

In 2009, Banda became deputy to president Bingu wa Mutharika. After his sudden death in 2012, she thwarted a cabinet plot to give the presidency to wa Mutharika’s brother, Peter.

Banda started her presidency by cutting her salary 30%. She also sold the presidential jet, though she is reportedly now chartering it for her use.

Banda moved quickly to restore relations with donors who had withdrawn aid from Bingu wa Mutharika over his overspending, authoritarianism and human rights abuses.

But her decision to devalue the kwacha by 50% hiked up prices of food and fuel, sparking widespread protests. Banda’s position as southern Africa’s first female president, her austerity policies and her work in favour of women’s rights earned her international applause.

She was named Africa’s most powerful woman by Forbes magazine, won awards and spoke at prestigious events.

But her rule has been tainted by the Cashgate scandal, in which about 70 civil servants, politicians and entrepreneurs are on trial on charges of having siphoned off at least 25 million dollars in government funds. The scandal prompted donors to cut aid that made up 40% of Malawi’s budget, leaving hospitals without drugs and schools without teaching materials.

Banda’s supporters say the stealing started before she took office.

“I don’t think she personally has taken money, though she had links with some of the suspects, who financed her party,” says a source who knows her well.

“She wants to do the right thing, but she is surrounded by bad advisers and misjudges situations,” he adds.

Banda has also been accused of using state television in her election campaign. Critics dismiss her recent initiatives to help the poor – such as donating nearly 800 cows to farmers and giving some people houses painted in orange, her party colour – as mere campaign propaganda.

But farmers in Nathenje south of Lilongwe said cows given by the president had changed their lives.

“Earnings from milk sales allow us to send our children to school,” said Mkukumila Banda, president of the local dairy farmers’ association.

Social commentator and human rights activist Billy Mayaya attributes part of the criticism to the patriarchal nature of Malawian culture.

“We were not ready for a female president,” he said.

“Joyce Banda has shown (Malawian) men that women are not weak,” said Sabina Patel, a candidate for MP from the president’s People’s Party.

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