There is a song in the holiday classic movie, White Christmas, that begins with Bing Crosby’s character asking, “What do you do with a general when he stops being a general?” It’s the same kind of question Amanda and I were asking as our town car weaved through the traffic in Times Square. We were about to spend the day with Her Excellency, the former president of Malawi, Dr. Joyce Banda.
What do you do with a president when she stops being a president? Dr. Banda is a larger than life figure for anyone who cares about events on the continent of Africa. She is a global treasure, one of only two female presidents in Africa. As president of Malawi, Dr. Joyce Banda commanded our attention by selling the presidential jet for $17 million and spending the money on food for the hungry. She also sold a fleet of government Mercedes.
Name another president (African or otherwise) who has done that. When allegations of internal corruption surfaced President Banda fired the entire cabinet of advisors. She also reversed discriminatory laws, welcomed the Special Olympics to Malawi, and as the chair of SAWAC inspired millions when she spoke at the funeral of Nelson Mandela.
Now she was climbing into the back seat of our town car and headed to the Strong Women, Strong World luncheon at The Metropolitan Club. Amanda and I had strategically planned to attend this World Vision event months ago. Dr. Banda had agreed to attend only days before.
As we weaved through traffic I handed her a list of names that might inform the day, but she wanted to talk about regular life and we laughed a lot. This was apparently the first time she had ditched the security detail and had headed out on her own. I suddenly felt responsible for a global treasure. She was accompanied by her daughter, Edith Akridge, who now heads The Joyce Banda Foundation in Washington D.C.
I told her how we had stood in the rain on the side of a muddy road and waved at her entourage last spring. They had whizzed passed us on the way to a crowded rally. “You didn’t see me.” I said. Joyce Banda laughed and told us her stories, too. My stories involved mud, hers randomly included names like Hugo Chavez and George Bush. Fair enough.
Lunch was cold chicken and inspiring stories. Everyone wanted a picture with Her Excellency and whispered in the bathroom to each other (and to me) that a president from Africa was amongst us. She was a rock star. She embodied the meaning of our event, Strong Women, Strong World, indeed.
We spent our last hour of the day over Dunkin Donuts coffee later that afternoon. It was her choice. I bought some donut holes hoping to make a connection to a story I had once heard about her. Turns out that story, about her once selling donuts on the street, was false and had been intended to be an insult by another woman in power. I tried to trash the donuts immediately, but she insisted we eat them saying, “I don’t even know how to make donuts.” “Me either.” We laughed.
The gesture meant in kindness led to an honest dialogue about the recent transition in power and how things have gone a little south politically. Some people want her to return, which inadvertently means she needs a little more personal security, protection from those who would oppose her. Politics and power.
She doesn’t seem to want to return to the statehouse. Joyce Banda is more interested in returning to the work she did long before she was a president: caring for women and girls through education and empowerment initiatives. She has a laundry list of goals that she believes will include ten countries in Africa. The Joyce Banda Foundation is interested in giving voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, food to the hungry, and education to those who seek it. She is interested in helping girls learn, have clean water, have choices beyond being bought and sold in marriage agreements. She likes to say that women may make up half the world’s population, but they also brought the other half into it.
The world needs more people like Joyce Banda.
Strong women don’t wait for permission or appointment or political power, they just keep moving. Strong women just keep doing what they know to do – like any mother who cares for her children, or a like a general who cares about the welfare of his or her troops.
So, what do you with a president when she stops being a president? For me, the answer has something to do with paying attention to what Dr. Joyce Banda is doing in Africa and following her lead. It means a further resolve to keep watering those gardens, pumping up clean water, and washing more hands as a practical expression of sharing the Living Water with the world.