Obama has styled herself as a global mom in chief, offering hugs to poor children in Johannesburg’s sprawling Zandspruit Township; as a drop-in mentor to high-schoolers from disadvantaged communities in Cape Town; and as a playful children's health advocate doing flat-as-a-board push-ups with former archbishop Desmond Tutu.
During her week in South Africa and Botswana — her most ambitious solo international visit — the first lady has offered a rare glimpse of other aspects of her personality. There is the stern parent, who famously told the White House cleaning staff that her daughters would make their own beds, and the modern-day girl-power feminist using a mantra of the South African women’s movement. “If you hit a woman, you hit a rock,” she said in her only keynote speech of the trip.
In an interview with reporters traveling with her, Obama called being first lady “a big bright light” and said she sees her international role as “empowering future leaders.”
“If they’re not ready, then the struggle continues,” she said. “But we also know that a lot of young people need to know they can do it. . . . And sometimes hearing it from someone that they look up to . . . gives them a little more of a boost.”
Obama’s approach has resonated here. She is admired as the “first black lady U.S.,” and the historic symbolism of having her African American family in the White House has not waned — particularly throughout this continent, where her husband’s election was celebrated with fervor. Newspaper headlines in 2008 asked whether, as the first U.S. president with African roots, Barack Obama would be Africa's “superhero.”
An 18-hour flight away from political battles in Washington and the requirements of the campaign trail — where the first lady has already begun stumping for her husband’s reelection effort — Obama has been free to push her agenda unencumbered from domestic politics.
And her popularity here seems to be as high as it is at home, maybe higher.
After she gave short remarks Friday at a luncheon of 23 young women in a lush garden cafe in Gaborone called Botswana's Green Diamond, Obama was approached from every direction. The young women, who were invited by the U.S. Embassy to see her, wore suits, dresses and freshly braided hair and covered their mouths in what looked like awe as she came closer.
Those who could not get close enough to touch her snapped pictures. Obama drew into an embrace anyone within arm’s length.
The hug is her diplomatic tool of choice.
At Regina Mundi church, an anti-apartheid landmark in Soweto where Obama spoke to 2,000 people Wednesday — her largest crowd of the trip — she was similarly surrounded.