As I read and watch the reports coming out of Haiti, I am reminded of the staggering images of orphans and poverty on my recent three-week trip in Malawi, Africa. Though the earthquake in Haiti is a more immediate and enormous tragedy, it seemed so similar, with faces of orphaned children; faces of despair and confusion. Third World countries that are dominated by poverty and oppression are full of desperation. But if we look long enough we can discover a resiliency, signs of hope, signs of small joys, the result of doing a lot with so little.

The Right Honorable Vice President of Malawi Joyce Banda invited me for my first visit to Africa, to research her life and Malawi, and subsequently write her story in articles and eventually a book. She is the first woman elected to a government executive position in Malawi, which took place in May 2009. After three weeks of traveling with her throughout Malawi into the remote small tribal villages, I became engrossed in the tribal culture.

I witnessed vast poverty, in villages and in the two cities, Lilongwe and Blantyre. I visited the orphanages that Banda established, a sea of hungry orphaned faces grateful for one meal a day. The children, 3 to 5 years old, sang for me. One by one, they stood up and recited the English alphabet, counted from 1 to 10, and smiled at me proudly as I applauded. Everywhere, there was evidence of lack of education, lack of medical access and sufficient supplies, lack of food and clean water. Yet everywhere, women and men lined the roads, waving, singing and honoring Banda. I asked one tribal chief why the woman vice president was so loved and honored. My translator repeated for me, “Because whatever she says she’s going to do for us, it happens. She cares for us.”

In the latest Haitian news reports, we are seeing how a person or a group can make a difference. This story is about one woman in Malawi who has for years and who still is making a difference. Banda gives or she gets help, and empowers the person or village to educate and train. Her goal is to get every child fed and educated, every woman respected and given equal rights, every pregnant woman hygienic medical help, and medical clinics set up near remote villages. She is driven, out of love for her country, to alleviate poverty and death in Malawi through access to educational resources for all children. These are enormous goals given that Malawi has the most poverty per capita of all the countries in Africa. However, when I first met Banda in New York City, I knew I was in the presence of a determined and powerful woman, full of grace, dignity and indomitable energy.

Banda was born on April 12, 1950, in a small tribal village called Malemia in the Zomba area. Her birth was a reason for celebration in this tribal community. One reason was that she was the first child in her family. Another was that the child and the mother survived the birthing in the primitive environment where there are 300 maternal deaths per 100,000 births.

Cultural traditions would normally dictate that this girl would not be educated. Only boys were sent to school. Girls helped the mother with a lot of the field and cooking work for basic needs. The girl would be married off at an early age, and the hope was that it would be to a man of higher economical and social level. Then, as wife, she would have no rights, no money, no possessions, no property, and no education, and would usually be subjected to physical and verbal abuse. Until 1964, she would have no voting rights or rights to hold a government position.

Fortunately for this girl, her father was self-educated and worked in the police force, and was a musician and the first black to teach at the academy. In his eyes, Joyce started showing exceptional qualities — curiosity, determination and intelligence. He taught her English and made sure she received an education. In addition, Banda’s mother also worked, which left Joyce Banda, starting at age 6, to care for her siblings. But she did it all, tenaciously and thoroughly.

Banda was an exception. “Joyce was a very precocious child,” a man from her village told me. “I’m not surprised she has become vice president. She got her humility from her mother and father and of course, education is the key.” Banda told me her father made sure of this. He told her she was a special child and he always hoped she would become someone remarkable.

Leaving an abusive husband

Banda didn’t bend easily to the rules, particularly for girls. “The young girl is brainwashed from a very early age to be subservient,” Banda said. “I did and said things that the well-behaved African woman was not supposed to do. My father allowed me to see and read those traditionally forbidden things.”

As an adult for her first major unconventional culture deviation and with great courage, she took her three children and left her abusive husband. Domestic violence was not unusual, but women accepted it as a way of life. Banda’s action was something, at that time, never thought of by a wife. Banda proceeded to gain financial independence by establishing a sewing business, transforming the colorful African fabrics into garments, starting with one sewing machine, then two, then three until she created a successful business exporting clothes to South Africa and employing women.

Banda is not only warm, gracious, compassionate and intelligent; she’s also an activist. She founded the National Association of Business Women of Malawi. Through this, women had access to training, information, credit markets and certain technology. The NABW has mobilized 15,000 women, disbursed $2,000,000 in loans and trained 12,000 women to run their own businesses. About 60 percent are in rural areas and in some instances, they are the main breadwinners for the family.

Banda didn’t stop there. Her mission in life is “to assist women and girls to gain social and political empowerment through entrepreneurship and education.” She established the Joyce Banda Foundation in 1997 using the prize money from the Africa Award for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger that she won jointly with the former president of the Republic of Mozambique, Mr. Joacquim Chissano. The foundation’s beginning was as an academic project. Because of Banda’s compassionate response to the unfortunate situation in the Zomba Malosa area, the foundation has evolved into a fully fledged multifaceted institution with a social welfare and community development wing. Approximately 10,000 orphans representing 10 percent of the entire population are jammed in this small area from AIDS and maternal births. The number of orphans is increasing at an alarming rate due to the high death rate. Her foundation has created orphan care centers and schools with a goal to feed and educate these children, keeping them in their country contributing future economic improvements.

In 1991 she co-founded with seven women the African Federation of Women Entrepreneurs in Ghana. She was the first woman to chair a statutory corporation, the Malawi Housing Corporation. Banda with 13 African Women Leaders founded the Council for Economic Empowerment in Africa. In 2000, she was elected the first chairman of the NGO Gender Network. She founded the Young Women Leadership Network. In August 2009, she was appointed good will ambassador for safe motherhood for Malawi — maternal health. She has received seven international awards.

This woman, beloved and respected by the village people all over Malawi, was chosen by the president to be his running mate. She was elected the first woman vice president and the president was re-elected for his second and last term just this last May. Smart move for him. Smart for the country’s health and future. An astonishing opportunity for Banda to introduce and make changes in the policies, which are deep in her heart. She has already helped get the Prevention of Domestic Violence bill enacted.

The Malawians welcomed me with open arms, trust and friendship. I left with Malawians in my heart. I was also honored with a gift chosen by several tribal chiefs from Banda’s beginning — Chawezi, a tribal name, meaning gift. They said I was a gift to Malawi.

I was particularly impressed and moved by Banda’s dedication and involvement in protecting, feeding and educating orphans. I look forward to many return trips, to follow her work, help where I can, and spend more time with this special friend — this special woman.

Marilyn Moss Rockefeller lives in Camden.