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Time Running Out for Malawi's Divisive President

<p>Joyce Banda says she's doing what's necessary to save her beleaguered country, but the public isn't yet convinced.</p>
Image: Mothers and their children line up at a field clinic in Chiradzulu, Malawi.
Mothers and their children line up at a field clinic in Chiradzulu, Malawi, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013. Lauren E. Bohn / For NBC News

CHIRADZULU, Malawi: Sixteen-year-old Rosa Nowayga is like most girls her age — she likes to dance and hang out with friends. But she's also married with two children. Her eyes sparkle with youthful optimism, but her shoulders prematurely slouch with exhaustion.

"Malawi is [full of] girls like me," she says, waiting in line at a rural healthcare clinic. "We can't change our situation. Poverty eats you."

Image: Rosa Nowayga at a field clinic in Chiradzulu, Malawi,
Sixteen-year-old Rosa Nowayga poses at a field clinic in Chiradzulu, Malawi, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013.Lauren E. Bohn / For NBC News

The landlocked southern African country is racked with challenges, its people accustomed to hanging on by a thread. Roughly the size of Pennsylvania, three-quarters of Malawi's 16 million live below the poverty line. Just nine percent of the population has access to electricity. The country's life expectancy hovers around 49. While primary education is free, only 16 percent of girls finish.

But one ambitious woman, who was born in a village not far from Rosa's, vows to change all that.

"All the ills that have dragged Malawi backwards must be stopped now," said Malawi's 63-year-old president, Joyce Banda, who was Vice President until her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, died 21 months ago. "We're at a transition point, and I am a part of a crop of new leaders on the African continent that worry about the people first."

As the second female president of an African nation, Banda is a beacon of hope. She isn't afraid to take on challenges that have weighed her country – and a continent – down for decades. But ahead of presidential elections in May, Banda has just as many detractors as she does fans. And time is running out to convince her country that she's the one who will walk them back from the edge of survival.

From rural to royal

As Banda whisks through the presidential palace in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe, people rise and greet her with an honorific "Her Majesty." But it wasn't long ago when her life was dramatically different.

Banda's modest background earned her the nickname "mayi wa mandasi," – woman who sells fritters. And it was in her village that she dreamed of something more for herself and other women. Banda recalls how a close childhood friend, who she says was "much brighter" than her, couldn't finish school because her family couldn't pay the $6 registration fee. Her friend, instead, married at 15.

Ahead of presidential elections in May, Banda has just as many detractors as she does fans.

"She's still where I left her," Banda said of her friend. "She has seven children and is in poverty. And I am where I am."

Banda married young, too, like most Malawian women. But at 25, she escaped an abusive relationship and fled with her three children. She then dedicated her career to spearheading grassroots efforts to improve the lives of Malawi's beleaguered women.

"My mother would ask me, 'Why are you in the villages?' Even I couldn't explain. All I knew was that it not acceptable to see my fellow women abused," she recalled. "These women relate to me, and I relate to's a love affair."

She has stridently taken on domestic abuse and the decriminalization of homosexuality – both taboo issues in the country. And she has continuously sacked cabinets over corruption rows.

"I was warned by my colleagues across the continent...they said the people you are tackling have a lot to lose, they'll fight you back and they'll drag you down. They'll suck you in. You might die, they might even shoot you," she said. "But my greatest achievement is that I make bold decisions and take risks when other people won't."

But for Banda—whose "mayi wa mandasi" nickname is used adoringly by fans, and condescendingly by the political elite— those risks might prove her demise.

"We're optimistic," says Brian Banda, the president's press officer. "But she has told us and her family to get ready to pack their bags. We're in for the fight, but it's up to the people."

Broken promises

Upon assuming the presidency, Banda ushered in sweeping economic reforms, including a devaluation of the country's currency and the removal of major subsidies on fuel and other commodities to meet conditions for an IMF loan. These reforms have made her something of an international development darling (she's quick to share that she was ranked by Forbes Magazine as the Most Powerful Woman in Africa – twice – and 47th on their 100 Most Powerful Women in the World list).

But back home those reforms have resulted in rising daily costs that have further strangled her people. IMF chief Christine Lagarde visited the country last year, congratulating Banda for her "bold" economic policies, and encouraged her to "stay the course." Thousands of Malawians came out to protest.

"I don't think of my political career... I put Malawi first," Banda said. "I've told Malawians that they need to go through a difficult time in order to get to a better place."

But it's a tough sell for Malawians who have grown weary from endless decades of shameless misrule, broken promises, and squelched dreams. Many say Banda has simply sold out to donors and that she's a mere tool to the west, further entrenching the country's indebtedness to outsiders instead of promoting self-reliance. Still others say she's no different from the depraved rest, simply paying lip service to reform and merely reshuffling her graft-ridden cabinet.

"She is of the people, but still...people don't understand her reforms," explains Clifton Ngozo, a local development worker. "When you're just hanging on, it's hard to see long-term."

Prominent economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, says the country is in an extreme crisis, which will only be exacerbated by rapid population growth in years to come.

'I've told Malawians that they need to go through a difficult time in order to get to a better place.'

"When you put the pieces together, it's one of the most difficult places in the world," he said. "It's been ravaged by the AIDS pandemic the past generation. There have been some glimmers of progress, but not many."

"What you need is a clear, long-term consistent strategy to get out of this mess," he added, criticizing the international system and donors for lacking adequate and innovative strategies to truly effect change. "And there is none. Malawi lives month-to-month, drought-to-drought, blackout-to-blackout. I could tell you there are harder places on the planet, but there are not that many."

Against the clock

For people like Dr. Grace Chiudzu, head of the maternity ward at the Kamazu Central Hospital, there's been change, but not enough. To her, Banda is a reformer chained by unshakable bureaucracy, but the clock is ticking.

"When she came into the office, I celebrated. I thought she had the will, but time is not on her side," she said. "The grounds are shaky. I'm not certain she'll win."

Dr. Grace Chiudzu discusses her county's health care situation at the Ethel Mutharika Maternity Ward at the Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi, Sunday Dec. 8, 2013.Lauren E. Bohn / For NBC News

Having faced near fatal labor complications herself, Banda has taken on Malawi's woeful maternal death toll, encouraging the involvement of local tribal chiefs – the country's unofficial powerbrokers – and the expansion of community health workers in a country with a severe shortage of trained medical personnel.

"She needs more time, but I'm not sure if the people will give it to her," Chiudzu says. "They need to see changes."

For 31-year-old hotel worker Hudson Phiri, the calculus is simple. "If Banda can bring food to my table, and a better job, she'll have my vote," he says, echoing the sentiments of a destitute nation. "She has until May."

Banda and her aides concede time isn't on their side. Still, she's resolute as her aides pass around newspapers detailing the country's latest government fraud scandal.

"Regardless of whatever smear campaign comes my way during elections, I don't care. Even if I lose the next elections, I don't care," she says. "I will leave a happy person knowing that what I have started now...Malawians will demand this of any leader in the future."

But for many, a future seems hard even to envision.

By nightfall, a sheet of darkness swept over 16-year-old mother Rosa's village, lit up only by sporadic patches of sharp neon blue from mobile phones.

"If I could tell the president one thing," says Rosa, unfazed by a swath of flies encircling her face, "I'd tell her...we're waiting." Her two-year-old son, Innocence – whom she says she named after a childhood toy – wailed loudly, tugging at her oversized sky-blue shirt.

"I'd tell her we're waiting, but not much longer."

This reporting was made possible in part by a reporting fellowship from the UN Foundation.