Joyce Banda

Wheelock College Commencement Address - May 15, 2015

Joyce Banda
May 15, 2015— Boston, Massachusetts
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Chair and trustees of Wheelock College, Madam President of Wheelock College, faculty and staff, parents, distinguished graduates, ladies and gentlemen. Class of 2015—are you tough enough? [cheers and applause] Are you tough enough? Are you tough enough to change the world? [cheers and applause] I am. [laughter]

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen. I was standing outside as we allowed students to walk in. I must apologize that I did not applaud you, I did not grab more hands. And that was because I was so carried away, trying to read what you've written on top of your hats. [laughter]

Thank you President, parents, ladies and gentlemen, for having me. I would like to start by congratulating today's graduates. And congratulations to my fellow recipients: Mr. Lawrence O'Donnell and Tiziana Filippine. I'm honored to be one of the degree recipients of your prestigious college. And now today, proudly, a fellow Wheelock Wildcat. [laughter]

When I arrived yesterday at the airport, I was met by the dear husband of President Jackie Jenkins-Scott. And he asked me, "Have you been to Boston before?" And I said, "You know, I came to speak at Harvard University twice." And he said to me, "Madam, I take exception when you come to Cambridge and say you came to Boston." [laughter] And I said, "Oh, I see." So when we crossed the river, he made sure to remind me, to say, "Now you are entering Boston." [laughter] And when we got to Boston he said to me, "By the way, where you are now, there are more than a dozen universities, and one of them is Wheelock." What he forgot to tell me is how beautiful this city is. I don't know, maybe because I came in spring, [laughter] because I dodged the snow. But you live in a beautiful city, and I'm greatly honored to be hosted by Dr. Jenkins-Scott and her very, very dear husband. Thank you for having us.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I am also privileged today to share my story. I am an African woman, a mother, a grandmother—but also a leader. I have taken many roles—a businesswoman, an activist, a politician, and a head of state. I have led in many capacities—as an elected Member of Parliament, a Cabinet Minister for Gender and Child Welfare and champion to the passing of the domestic violence bill. I've been Foreign Minister of my country. I've been Vice President, and I've been President of the state. Through these roles, I have had the opportunity to be an agent for change—in my community, in my country, in Africa and in the world as a whole.

The message I bring this morning is that I want you to know, as you graduate, that it didn't happen in a day. It's been a journey of 40 years—filled with joys, successes and impact. But it has also had an equal share of losses, failures and disappointments. As you graduate today, it is a shining day for you—it is a celebration of years of hard work and recognition of your resolve, dedication, and sacrifices to complete your education from this prestigious institution. But there is a reason they call it "commencement"—the goal today not to celebrate the end of things, but to celebrate the beginning of the rest of your life and career. Speaking to you at this critical juncture in your life is an honor for me—and I want to share my experiences and my perspectives with you.

I am sure you are wondering what we have in common, you and I—and how my experience and my advice would be relevant to you at this stage in your life. But we share a common sense of purpose—a desire to serve and to lead. To have impact and make a difference. To be the most we can be for ourselves and the greatest good for others.

How do I know? It is because of the fact that you all chose to attend a deeply mission-driven institution for your education and that is committed to creating a safe, caring and just world for children and families. I, too, have based my life on a personal mission statement that I drew when I was thirty years old, and I hope that you have already drawn yours, and if you haven't, please try to do that tonight. My mission is life is to assist women and youth to gain social and political empowerment through business and education. In our passion and our compassion, our dedication and our service, we are tied together, you and I.

We are also tied together through Jackie Jenkins-Scott. I don't know if you know this, but the world knows her resilience, her dedication, her humility, her personality of being so unassuming. The whole world knows. I thank [inaudible] for having stood with her and by her, to end up getting Wheelock where it is today.

Distinguished ladies and gentleman, I say this because I've been a head of state—and because I'm 65. [laughter] And so I know that the success of a country and an institution very much depends on who is sitting in the driver's seat. [applause]

So it is apt that the theme for today is advancing social justice and education around the world. We could not be talking about anything more important today. I could talk about global issues and political challenges—but I want to make the case to you for spending your life advancing social justice and education with my own personal story, and very quickly I'll run through it.

I was born in a very small village in Malawi. They had just established a little clinic in that village—a British midwife had come to establish that clinic. The morning after I was born, she came around and found my grandmother carrying me on her lap, and asked, "What is the name of this child going to be?" My grandmother looked back at her and asked her what her name was. She said, "My name is Joyce." She [grandmother] said, "Yeah, yeah, that's the name of this child. [laughter] Because I want this child to grow up to be as important as you are and to build clinics."

What she forgot at that moment was that she was denying me my traditional right to assume her name, because my tradition says that your grandmother will give you her name if you're the first grandchild. What you lose when she doesn't, is you don't become the matriarch of the family when she dies. So ended up being Joyce, but I should have been Hilda.

Number two tradition demands that the grandmother shall bring up the first grandchild. Unfortunately for my grandmother, my father had just joined the Malawi police band and was living 15 kilometers away. So therefore, she had to live in town and I had to go and live with her. My father argued with my grandmother, "I'm going to bring up my daughter, because I want to send her to school." My grandmother said, "No way. It won't be necessary. It is my right to bring her up to grow up to be a very good housewife." So they agreed, we might as well just train her to do both. "I'll keep her on Monday through Friday, and on Saturday and Sunday she'll come home to the village so you can teach her all you want.

And so, indeed, every Friday I would go home by bus, and without fail, a friend of mine from the village named Chrissie would be waiting at the roadside to walk me home, and she would tell me about what had happened in the village during the week and I would tell her what I had seen in town. She went to the village school and I went to the urban school. She was brighter than me. We got to the end of primary school. We were both selected to the best girls secondary schools. She went one time, and the next time I came back, Chrissie wasn't standing by the roadside. My grandmother told me she wasn't going to be coming back. She had dropped out of school because the family would not raise $6 for her to go back. I am still talking about social justice.

So Chrissie had dropped out of school and I went on...and on. And went all the way to the State House and became my country's president. But Chrissie was brighter than me, but as a speak, Chrissie is where I left her. Chrissie didn't go to school, so at 15 she got married and the child she had at 15 died at two months old, of AIDS. That's how unfair the world is. And I got angry then, and I used that anger throughout my life to send as many girls as possible to school so they don't end up like my best friend, Chrissie. [applause]

The statistics show that 97 million primary school children are not going to school, right now, in the world. Statistics show that 226 million girls and boys are not going to school in secondary school in the world, as we speak. Statistics show that here, in the West, our children, by the age of two, they are already playing on the computer. My grandson is here, he's 10 years old. He lives here. I have to take him with me to the shop to buy an iPad, because he knows better than I. Where I come from, maybe sometimes if a child is lucky, the first time they see a computer is when they're finishing high school.

What am I saying? That in this world, we are living a whole generation behind. And that's a time bomb, and we shouldn't be surprised about what we see in the Mediterranean Sea—people leaving Africa, going over to find green pastures. If we empowered them, they would stay at home and work at home. The choice is ours.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I have, however, been fortunate because I brought Chrissie back. I made sure that some of her children are now at university. And I have now made her a champion to go around and identify needy children that I send to school. I'm now sending to school 3,500 students and most of them are identified by Chrissie. And by the way, I brought Chrissie to New York two years ago and she even met President Clinton.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, allow me to especially give a message about women, because when we speak about justice and education, so more or less about women and children. Because where I come from, they are the face of poverty.

I am proud to see so many women in the audience today. [applause] As I want to speak about women, I must warn you that whether we like it or not, there are two things. One, we are the majority. We are the majority and so therefore the world needs to know that we are the majority. Number two, I also want the world to know and to remember always that we brought the other half into this world. [cheers and applause]

But isn't it sad, that that as it may be, we live in patriarchal societies—most of us. And so whether we like it or not, we have to co-exist. And whether we like it or not, when we draw our action plans as women to empower women, we shall need our men to help us implement those action plans. [applause] And so, it would be naive for us to think we can do it on our own. And I have seen [inaudible] champions, gender experts, that have really goofed and ended up failing because they were confrontational and thought they could do it without men.

At the global level, two of the millennium development goals that we were the furthest behind in achieving by 2015 is MDG 3 and MDG 5—women's empowerment and gender equality, and maternal health. But I believe that our future depends on empowering women—in the households and out in the world, by educating them. For women, economic empowerment means respect; it means they can contribute to household decisions. It means they begin to have a voice in decisions about giving birth, about health and the education of their girl children. When girls are educated, health outcomes improve for themselves and their families. In most developing countries, secondary education is not free, so girls are sent off to be married when they're very young. Because when your resources are low at household level, boys are going to school and girls are not going to school.

Sadly, childbirth is a leading cause of death for teenage girls around the world. Many more suffer fistula, and the social stigma that comes along with it. Ensuring those extra years of education can protect girls from early marriage and pregnancy, also giving them the skills and knowledge to earn income and later empowers them in life.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, these problems may seem far from your challenges—but we need women to be at the policy setting and leadership table to bring this agenda forward. For this, we need women and men to believe in the importance of a joint fight against injustice. We need women and men to commit to be equal partners in service, in decision making and in leadership.

As you go forward today with aspirations of becoming leaders and making a difference, I want to share with you four messages. Call it advice, if you want to, and take it or leave it.

First, choose to be extraordinary. Choose to lead an extraordinary life—yes, it is a choice. You may not have a choice over the obstacles you face, the challenges you may come across, or when you will succeed or fail. If I take my own story, there are two ways to tell it—the first is to say "what a difficult life"—born in a poor village in one of the poorest countries in the world. I got married at 21 and ended up in an abusive marriage for ten years. By age 25 I had three children. I cannot even begin to explain to you the physical fights we had, [inaudible] sprinkling water on each other—I mean, it was just bad.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I faced these biases and struggles even as President—and actually, maybe even more as President—you are criticized for anything and everything. But I choose to look at my situation differently. I say I have been extremely fortunate—being born in a continent with abject poverty, social injustice and heartbreaking challenges for women has given my life a sense of purpose. Each failure has taught me a lesson, made me stronger. Along the way, there are always easier paths to take—paths with less resistance, paths with less risk. At each step, I have made a choice—and I choose not to be ordinary, but extraordinary.

And that's what I'm asking you to decide today. Are you going to lead an extraordinary life or an ordinary life?

I've also been lucky that all the issues I've championed—which is women's empowerment, fighting against gender-based violence, girls' education and maternal health—has all originated from my personal experience. I went in to have my first-born child in 1984 and suffered what they call post-partum hemorrhage—bleeding to death. But my husband had a friend who was a gynecologist who came and saved my life. The next day, everyone that came into the hospital said, "How come you're still alive?" And the question then I asked myself was, what about those that are not as fortunate as me. And they need to become my fight.

While I was in State House, when I got in, 675 women were dying giving birth [per 100,000]. By the time I left, we had reduced that to 460. [applause]

Isn't it [inaudible] that here in the West when a woman is expecting a baby, it is a time of joy and expectation. In fact, they are called expectant mothers. Where I come from, when a women is expecting a baby, it is a time of anxiety. In fact, they are called sick women because you don't know that when they go, they will come back. I went to visit a very remote hospital one time and found that that night, only one baby had been born. I walked over to the woman, excited, wanting to hold the baby, and she looked at me and said, "I don't have a baby." I said, "What happened?" She said, "I didn't bring a candle, so we were trying to deliver this baby in the dark. Meanwhile, the cord was around the neck and we strangled the baby." These are things that are not even comprehensible for people here, but they are facts. But they are facts, and for me, that's what injustice is all about.

Gender based violence. An American friend of mine who came to work for USAID told me, a messenger in the office was asked by them, "Peter, do you abuse your wife?" And he said, "No, no, no, madam—I don't abuse my wife." And as they continued to speak, they said, "Oh, we would have been disappointed if you told us you beat up your wife." And he turned and said, "Oh, you mean beating her? Oh yeah, that I do every day." Because for him, that is not abuse. That is part of being a husband. And half the time, the poor wife doesn't know that she's being abused.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, my next message to you is to commit to what you believe in. It sounds simple, but if you are on the road to being an extraordinary leader, it is far from easy. Sometimes your choices hurt your own chances of glory, power and success. When I became President, for instance, I took over a collapsed economy. There was no fuel in the country—people had been queuing for weeks to get fuel outside petrol stations. Two million people were without food. There was no foreign exchange and no import cover—we had no money. There was no freedom of the press—our ranking on the global index was 145. Many of our democratic freedoms had been curtailed. Many laws that were abusive had been passed. 675 women were dying giving birth [per 100,000].

When I took office, I was taking over the remaining term of the previous President who passed away. With two years that I had, I had a choice—make incremental changes and focus on establishing my position and power. Maybe I could wait to get a full term to correct those issues. But it was clear to me—I had come into the office, and worked in public service for decades to serve. And at this stage of crisis in my country, I had only one course of action—however politically damaging and challenging it may be.

It meant I had to devalue our currency by over 50 percent. I had to make many unpopular decisions. In the two years I was in office, I repealed majority of the laws, economy grew by 6.3%. A Presidential Initiative was established to reduce maternal death. Food harvest by the time I left had increased to 3.9 million metric tonnes, 1 million overproduction. We built model villages in each district of the country and a water project in each district. The freedom of the press had improved to the position of 79. And I was proud.

The obstacles were many. To be honest, there were many times along the way where I could have focused on politics, on winning the next election. But my mission is clear. I see my life's work as five pillars: income generation for women, education, women's health, women's leadership, and [women's] rights. These ideas are key to empowering women, and ultimately children. When we empower women with education, small businesses, and allow them to actively participate in society, and provide them reproductive health rights, we can lift an entire nation.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, there's no time when you can start. As I speak, we have built four schools in Malawi. We run 30 early child education centers. We feed 30,000 children a day. And as the president [Jackie Jenkins-Scott] says, we have reached to out over a million people.

There's no age at which you must start. I say this because just a few weeks ago I met a girl from New York who is 13 years old who came to see me and told me that she has registered a foundation. And the foundation is two years old, so she was 11 when she started. She now delivers food to homeless shelters for disadvantaged women. We have started an initiative in Malawi where you can adopt a clinic, because for $10 a woman can have safe delivery. She has asked to adopt her own clinic where 100 women each month can go and have safe delivery, and it will be only $1,000. And I asked her, at 13, how she would raise this money. She said, "I'll raise it at school and with friends, and I'll do it." At 13 years old, she's already conscious of the injustice around the world.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, finally: Know there are many paths to get to a goal. Actually, I am told Dolly Parton once said: " If you don't like the road you're on, pave another one." Today, you will leave here with plans about how you will get to your goal—ideas about how you one day will find a cure for this and the next, lead a city or a country, run a company, save a life, or change a community. Let me assure you that most of those plans will fail. But it is not the failure that is important, but the choice you make. You want to rise and run again and take an alternative path, or are you going to lie there and feel sorry for yourself?

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, your journey starts today, graduates: to serve and to lead. To become a mission-oriented leader. Waiting for you is an extraordinary life—if you are ready to choose it.

As an African woman, allow me to end with a short story for two minutes. In my tradition—and I want to repeat it because I'm in a very sophisticated audience—that's there's no scientific proof for what I'm about to say. But where I come from, my grandmother told me, and we are told, that every child—that's the bit that is true—that when every child is born it comes out like this [hands clutched to chest]. A child is not born like that [open hands held out from sides]. And that I can confirm because I'm a mother of five. My grandmother told me that every child is born like this as that child comes out. What is not scientifically proven is the next bit. She told me, she said, "What you have in here [hands held out] that you are holding in here [hands to chest], what God has put in here [hands to chest], nobody can take away from you. Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, she told me that now in life—I'm telling you at this early age—open your hands and see the talents and the gifts that God has placed in your hands, and pursue them, and exploit them, and take advantage of them. [applause]

You can be the best in class, but you can spend your life that way [hands to chest]. And you can be an average student, and open your hands and see what you have in your hands, and run, and exploit this, and achieve, and succeed, and become your country's next president. Africa has achieved that. America is still struggling to get one woman into State House. [applause]

Are you tough enough to change the world? [shouts from audience] Are you tough enough? [more shouts] God bless you.

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