This week, Joyce Banda took office in Malawi as Africa’s second female president (Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the first). She has her work cut out for her: Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries with almost three-quarters of its population living below the poverty line. It has one of the fastest growing populations in the world – women on average have 5.5 children, and according to UN estimates, the country is tracking toward a population of 40 million by 2040 (up from 15 million today); Banda’s predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, was a disaster. He became increasingly autocratic during his tenure, and managed to alienate Malawi’s most important donors – the United Kingdom, the United States, and the IMF – which supplied 40 percent of the county’s budget.
Banda, however, is a remarkable person who despite the odds, just might be able to put Malawi on a positive path. When I first met her six years ago, she was serving as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but those around her predicted with confidence that she would be president someday. Her personal story is compelling, and gives some indication of how she might approach the challenges she now faces.