Africa trip has been a time for first lady Michelle Obama to shine

If Michelle Obama arrived at the White House as a reluctant first lady, her visit to southern Africa over the past week has offered the best view yet of how that aversion has fallen away as she has embraced the power that comes with her role.

On her trip — part official diplomatic mission, part personal pilgrimage — she has displayed her version of soft diplomacy. She has appeared at 20 events and made stops at a few big tourist attractions.

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.

Zodwa Pakade, 35, who sat in the crowd, said the first lady made a special connection.

“She’s got energy. She's an individual and human,” Pakade said. “She’s an inspiration to women. She cares for people and for us.”

Graca Machel, the wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela and a beloved figure in the nation, introduced Obama before her keynote speech in Soweto as a “daughter who has returned home” and someone who “redefines womanhood in the 21st century.”

“The modern woman. She doesn’t sacrifice her career. She doesn’t sacrifice motherhood,” Machel said. “She doesn’t sacrifice her marriage.”

The first lady’s good rapport with the people of South Africa and Botswana has been covered by newspapers.

A Johannesburg newspaper said she had a pitch-perfect pronunciation of Xhosa and Zulu names that she used throughout her speech. A reporter attending one of Obama’s events declared, “She’s gorgeous’’ as she walked into the lobby of the Nelson Mandela Foundation for a photo op.

The former president allowed her family a rare visit to his home. Obama described it as a kind of family gathering with lots of cousins.

Family was a theme of Obama's trip. She traveled with her daughters, Malia, 12, and Sasha, 10; her mother, Marian Robinson; and her niece Leslie Robinson, 15, and nephew Avery Robinson, 19. Obama’s daughters, who are rarely in the public eye in the United States, were part of her diplomacy here.

While Mom worked, sitting in on State Department-organized roundtables of young women discussing their continent’s challenges, Sasha played tag with Leslie. At a day-care center in Zandspruit Township, Obama introduced herself, her daughters and her mother, telling the children in a high-pitched voice: “See, I brought my mom with me.”

Then she went down the line and touched each child. “Here’s a tickle. Here’s a hug. And a hug. And a tickle and a tickle,” she said.

At the day-care center, her daughters read from Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat,” and on another day they helped her paint a mural.

They ended the trip with a family safari in the South African bush, where they saw elephants, wildebeest and other animals.

On a private tour of Mandela’s archives, Obama turned to Sasha and said: “I want to make sure that you see and listen. You’re going to be tested on this.”

Kristina Schake, the first lady’s communications director, said her boss has made clear that “one of the most important things for her daughters in this job is to open them up to experiences like this.”

Obama has also seemed to want to open up her world to the people she met.

As she often does with teenagers, she told disadvantaged high school students who were brought to Cape Town University for a tour that her background was similar to theirs. And she told them she sees the same promise in them that she sees in her daughters.

“That’s what keeps me motivated. When I see you, I see them. When I see them, I see you.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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