Joyce Banda, the new President of Malawi, has joined an exclusive club that only has her and Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Banda ascended to power last Saturday following the death on April 5 of former president Bingu wa Mutharika who suffered cardiac arrest aged 78.
In a largely conservative patriarchal society Joyce Banda was a surprise choice for vice-presidential candidate when President Mutharika anointed her his running mate ahead of the May 2009 elections. In a society where women are inculcated to be always meek she also surprised many when she resisted calls within the then ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to endorse the President's brother, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Mutharika, to succeed the President in 2014 when he was scheduled to retire.
The decision not to endorse Prof. Mutharika's candidature earned her expulsion from the ruling party and daily derision at public rallies and on state airwaves. A senior ruling party official openly said Malawi was not ready for a female president while First Lady Callista Mutharika said Mrs. Banda was fooling herself for she was a mere market woman selling mandasi (fritters.)
Banda took all these in her stride, saying she was glad to be identified with market women because over 80 per cent of Malawian women belongs to that category.
"Yes, she's right, I'm indeed a mandasi seller and I'm pride of it because the majority of women in Malawi are like us, mandasi sellers.
The question of whether Malawi was ready for a female president or not was settled on Saturday when Chief Justice Lovemore Munlo swore her to become Malawi's fourth president since independence from Britain in 1964.
Born Joyce Hilda Ntila the eldest in a family of five children some 62 years ago President Banda's life has been full of activity. Her father, a police officer, was a drum major in the Police Brass Band. Her association with music would continue later in life when her youngest sister, Anjimile, ran US superstar Madonna's charity Raising Malawi.
"My legacy is heavily rooted in my background for it is my background that is the genesis of what I have been able to accomplish and stand for," she says.
Banda founded the National Association of Business Women (NABW) in 1989 which made her popular among the rural poor for it gave start-up cash for small-scale businesswomen.
"The women didn't go to school when they were young because parents preferred to send their brothers, the women couldn't access loans in their own right because the banks sought the approval of a male dependant, the women couldn't make decisions at household level because they didn't bring any income into the household," she recalls. "Such revelations convinced me that women's empowerment would help unlock many of the challenges Malawian women were facing and for us in NABW we believed that economic empowerment would be a good starting point to changing lives of women for the better."
She add: "One lesson I have learnt is that it is wrong to assume that all what the poor are entitled to are only small amounts of money. In later life I have learnt that even the poor can manage bigger amount of money in their businesses as long as there is the right framework to guide the business operations."
Her involvement with rural businesswomen made her joint winner with former Mozambican President Joachim Chissano in 1997 of the US-based Hunger Project's Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger.
"As I grew up and traversed through the lengths and breadths of Malawi, I became increasingly aware of the extent of the dehumanising levels of rural poverty manifested in poor housing, food insecurity, limited or no access to social amenities and poor road infrastructure among other aspects," says President Banda.
Joyce Banda cut her teeth in politics in 1999 when she won a seat in Parliament for the former ruling United Democratic Front of former president Bakili Muluzi. She held a number of cabinet positions in both the Muluzi and Mutharika administrations. She has ascended to power at a time when Malawi is facing serious economic challenges. Because of the late President Mutharika's abrasive politics most of Malawi's traditional Western donors have deserted Malawi leaving the southern African country with historic shortages of foreign currency, fuel and essential drugs. So southern Africa's first female president, and the continent's second, has her work cut out for her and she has to hit the ground running.
"My Government will work towards normalising relations with our traditional partners," she says.
Already her phone has not stopped ringing. British Minister for Africa Henry Bellingham called to promise London's willingness to send an envoy to Lilongwe to normalise the soured relations. Across the Atlantic US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also offered similar assurances, so did the European Union's Catherine Ashton and the IMF.
But it will not be an easy task for Banda for implementing some of the donors conditions may make her unpopular and go against her personal beliefs. For instance, the IMF wants a steep devaluation of the currency, the kwacha, which will automatically push prices of essential goods through the roof. A very deeply religious woman she is she may also have to confront the touchy issue of doing away with homophobic laws.
But for now the goodwill of both within and outside is palpable. She might wish to maintain that if she wants to prove that market women have it after all.
President Banda walked out an abusive marriage to Roy Kachale in 1981 with her three children.
"First husband Roy Kachale was abusive. This is what she told me: "Most African women are taught to endure abusive marriages. They say endurance means a good wife but most women endure abusive relationship because they are not empowered economically, they depend on their husbands."
She is married to retired Chief Justice Richard Banda with whom he has two children.
"My dear husband, Richard, has been the driving force behind my success and rise to whatever level I am now," she says. "My story and legacy is incomplete without his mention."
On the PP Government's political philosophy, President Banda says: "The main policy objective of the Peoples Party Government will be to create wealth through economic growth and job creation as a means of achieving poverty reduction."