Israeli-Born Malawi Parliament Member: Actions, Not Words, Will Change Africa for the Better
How does the Israeli-born son of an eastern European Holocaust survivor end up as a parliament member in one of Africa’s poorest nations? Just ask 50-year-old businessman David Bisnowaty, who in May 2014 was elected to the Malawi National Assembly.
Bisnowaty sat down with The Algemeiner last week while he was in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly.
“My father worked as a mechanical engineer for a big multinational company, so we used to travel a lot in Africa,” Bisnowaty said. “So I basically grew up as a child in Africa and when you grow up in Africa, you become an African.”
He later returned to Israel for schooling and served in the Israeli military. But, Bisnowaty explained, “Africa was calling me. I needed to go back there.”
He moved to South Africa and started working there in the medical supplies industry in the late 1980s. One of the nearby countries his business took him to, Bisnowaty said, was Malawi.
After getting a contract with a hospital in Malawi, Bisnowaty told his wife, “Let’s just move there for a year.”
“At the time, in 1994, Nelson Mandela had been elected president and we weren’t sure what was going to be in South Africa,” Bisnowaty said. “We said to ourselves, ‘We were not part of the apartheid government, why should we be the victims?’ So we went to Malawi for one year and here I still am many years later.”
Bisnowaty said he never thought he would end up in politics, but a December 2013 incident changed his life.
“I was rushing to the airport and on my way there I saw this little kid licking the road with his tongue because he spilled his food and it broke my heart,” Bisnowaty said. “I said to myself, ‘There is no way this can happen in the 21st century.’”
Bisnowaty continued: “I told my kids, ‘I think I’m going to join politics and I’m going to prove that I can be a peaceful freedom fighter and bring change.’ My kids said, ‘Dad, you’re crazy. You’re a Jewish white person in an African country, you will never be elected.’”
In the May 2014 elections, Bisnowaty ran as an independent candidate for a spot in parliament against 11 opponents. He campaigned in English, and a translator helped him communicate with Chichewa speakers in rural villages.
“I got a landslide victory,” Bisnowaty said. “The people loved me.”
Bisnowaty, who represents the Lilongwe City Center constituency, said he believes he is the only Jewish citizen of the country of more than 16 million people. More than 80 percent of Malawians are Christians, while close to 15 percent are Muslim.
“Malawians love Jews and Israel,” Bisnowaty said. “Malawi has always had very strong ties with Israel, even during the dictator’s era (a reference to the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s time in power between 1966 and 1994). Israel was the first country to send doctors and agricultural people to Malawi unconditionally.”
Bisnowaty did, however, face antisemitism in an incident in parliament late last year. He described what happened:
I spoke something against the opposition and one of their MPs said to me, ‘You Jew, go back to where you came from.’ He ended up having to retract it and the leader of the opposition had to apologize. I gave a speech in which I said I was ashamed that so many years after the Second World War, somebody would say such a thing to me. My mother is a Holocaust survivor. I won’t accept this antisemitism.
That incident, however, stands out as an outlier for Bisnowaty.
“I love Malawi,” he said. “I believe the world is one small village. I made my life in Malawi, it is the country I love. I have a passion to help it. And the proof is in the pudding. Actions speak louder than words. I’m doing things, I’m helping, I’m legislating.”
He went on to say, “We have a purpose in life. I believe in God and I believe I didn’t end up in Malawi for nothing. My purpose was to help.”
One of the reasons for Bisnowaty’s trip to the US last week was to seek assistance for Malawi from American Jews.
“Jews believe that saving one person is like saving the whole world,” he said. “We need schools and clinics and water…I want people to come and see, if they can afford to come and see, and if not, be in touch with me. We’ll take whatever help we can get, we really need it.”
Bisnowaty said he will probably run for a second five-year term in parliament in 2019.
“History is the politics of the past and politics is the history of the future,” Bisnowaty said. “Africans need to live and die with dignity and at the moment they don’t. Let’s change Africa, not by talk, but by action. At the UN, there is lots of talk about this initiative and that initiative, but how much really gets done on the ground? I don’t want to talk, I want to do things.”