In Ghana, Focus on Michelle Obama's Possible Ancestral Ties to This West African Country

The streets of Ghana's capital city buzz with anticipation and excitement as President Obama pays his first presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009

ACCRA, Ghana, July 12

The entire population of Labadi and Labone, poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of this capital city's center, seemed to be flowing in one direction. Everyone was scurrying toward a single local landmark -- a two-story yam-colored building: La General Hospital. The president of the United States and first lady Michelle Obama were due to arrive there in a few hours on Saturday morning. A tide of people was advancing, moving with optimism and pride.

American flags blew in the light balmy breeze from atop the carts of street vendors who had turned the day's excitement into a barker's opportunity. Women accessorized their Crayola-hued African-print dresses with kerchiefs ablaze with red and white stripes and blue stars. And if one eavesdropped on virtually any conversation, whether it was unfolding in English or any of Ghana's languages or dialects, a single common word pierced the cacophony: Obama. Over and over. Obama.

These residents were honored, and they showed it by dressing up for this moment. Men strode down the red-earth streets dressed in sober business suits and ties, no matter the mugginess of the day. Women hurried along in ankle-length skirts, matching head wraps and heels -- even the occasional pair of high-heeled, metallic gold mules teetered on these uneven roads, some of them squishy with mud. It didn't matter that the only sign that the first couple was anywhere nearby came from the helicopters circling overhead, the police officers guarding streets that had been emptied of traffic and the palpable electricity that comes from knowing that something -- something unusual -- is about to happen.

Mohammed Sanni, a contractor who lives in this neighborhood, had been standing on a grassy median for three hours. He was so very, very tired of waiting, he said. But he would persevere. "I'm here to see the president. It's important to me because he's an African. And I'd like to see the first lady," Sanni added. "She seems nice, but I don't know that much about her."

Public anonymity and admiring curiosity were the story lines that followed Michelle Obama as she and her husband raced from Moscow to Rome and finally to Accra in little more than a week. In Moscow, many locals viewed her as the admirable gardener. In Italy, she was a "spouse," one of many wedded to a Group of Eight leader and almost always part of a tour group that moved silently from luncheon to museum tour to motorcade. But here in Africa, while the details of her résumé are not known and her pet projects such as community service and nutrition remain a mystery, she is, for the folks here, a hometown girl, a sort of distant cousin who has made good, and whom they've been anxious to meet.

Michelle Obama's ancestry can be traced back to slaves, many of whom were launched into subjugation from this West African nation. It doesn't matter that the specifics of that part of her family lineage are uncertain or that Ghana may not actually figure in it. Such fine details don't matter to the people here. "Michelle is from Ghana because her ancestors were from Ghana" -- of this Helena Botchey, owner of Helen Herbal and Family Planning Shop, is convinced. Barack Obama may have a Kenyan father, but the first lady's roots bear the scars, stresses and emotional weight of Ghana, which became the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence in 1957.

If the president is an emblem of future possibilities for this peaceful democratic country, then the first lady symbolizes how much of a painful history has been overcome. For many residents here, she is the embodiment of optimism, proof that the past is not destiny.

"I like the wife. She has roots in Ghana; I'm part of her," said Doris Otebire, a shopkeeper who sells DVDs and compact discs. "Women are strong and powerful in Ghana and she's strong."

Throughout this trip, Michelle Obama has mostly remained silent -- at least in public. This international whirlwind has mostly been about supporting her husband and about the symbolism -- the photo story she can create to underscore his agenda. All too often, that symbolism failed to deliver much of an emotional wallop. It was particularly unsuccessful in Italy, where the G-8 spouses toured the L'Aquila earthquake site in a hasty 10 minutes and then left for lunch.

But here in Accra, Michelle Obama's presence -- her silent, smiling, brown-skinned presence -- delivered a powerful message. The only complaint is that they wanted to see more of her -- and hear her, too. "She should speak more publicly and talk about how women can be on our own whether we are married or not married. We don't have to stop at any level," said Mawuena Charity Ati, who stopped to chat while on her way to work. "It's important for the community and the continent at large."

The most resonant moment of that African kinship was when the first lady visited the Cape Coast Castle -- the former slave factory, with its blue window shutters, red tile roof and infamous "door of no return." With her family, she toured the site where so many Africans were separated from their families and embarked on the Middle Passage. The stone holding rooms were dank, cramped and devoid of any natural light. After the tour, the president made a few brief remarks, noting how the history of the place resonated deeply, particularly as the father of two young daughters who are the descendants of both Africans and African Americans.

But this entire Africa leg has been rich with reminders and subtle references to that dark history. When the couple had breakfast with Ghana's new president John Mills Atta earlier Saturday, it was at Castle Osu, perched over the sea and itself a onetime slave trading post.

When the president and first lady's motorcade finally arrived at La General Hospital, neighbors peered from balconies, waved flags and cheered. She and the president visited the open-air women's clinic that abuts the main hospital building. Their tour guide was a nurse named, appropriately, Mercy. Mercy Kotey introduced the first couple to a group of about 20 pregnant women. And in a manner that was more like a mother to mothers-to-be, rather than VIP to fans, Michelle Obama inquired after their health and encouraged the women to take care of themselves.

The tour also included a stop in a nursery where she met a group of mothers with their babies. And rather than offer remarks or deliver a speech, the first lady picked up and comforted a crying child -- at least briefly -- before turning the little one back over to mom. It was a gesture of maternal understanding that spoke volumes in a country that has been focused on high infant mortality, so much so that the government declared the problem a national emergency last year.

In the early planning of this trip, only the first lady had been scheduled to visit this hospital. And the message -- and again it is all about symbolism -- appeared to be one of women supporting other women. The sight of this African American first lady -- with her background in hospital bureaucracy, city government and community outreach -- striding into a maternity ward filled with black African mothers-to-be would speak to the important role women play in building strong communities, sound economies and stable governments. With the president by her side, would the message of the visit shift? Would it become a tableau that pointed to the role of government in caring for its people? No less important a point, just . . . different.

But as the first couple toured the hospital, Michelle Obama held the hand of the nurse who led the way. "We are in this together," the gesture seemed to say.

In the neighborhood surrounding the hospital, so many of the women are shopkeepers, students, errand runners and nurturers. They may spend their days trekking back and forth across red-earth roads instead of dashing from one side of town to the other on a subway, but they too ponder a form of work-family balance -- a topic that Michelle Obama has often talked about stateside. Women here relate to her not as a distant figure in designer clothes or a yuppie gardener. They see themselves in her -- in both her physical attributes and in her independence.

"We want women to be who they are," said Shadrack Adjei Adjetey, who was tending a small general-goods store and wearing a T-shirt with the faces of Barack Obama and Atta. "She can boost the morale of women."

After a nonstop, rush-rush day, the president and first lady said their goodbyes to the people of Ghana at Kotoka International Airport in an elaborate departure ceremony staged by the Ghanaian government. The first couple had arrived too late the previous evening for a traditional welcome. But they would not be allowed to leave without a proper send-off.

And so invited guests -- from dignitaries to Peace Corps volunteers -- crowded onto the tarmac, perhaps a thousand in all, wearing Barack Obama T-shirts or traditional dress that had been personalized with some nod to the American president: his name repeated in a decorative pattern, his photo as a design element. There was a military band in red dress uniform with tubas oompahing. Then came the dancers spinning and high-stepping as their loose-fitting costumes caught the breeze and soared.

As much as this was a presidential farewell, it was for Michelle Obama as well. Twenty-four hours hadn't even passed since she had arrived, but she was no longer the familiar stranger. A block-long banner that hung from one of the airport hangars included three faces: Ghana's president Atta, the president of the United States and the first lady. She was part of the "change" that Ghana says has come. The president spoke and thanked everyone for the warm welcome. Michelle Obama stood off to the side with daughters Malia and Sasha. But when it came time for those last handshakes along the rope lines, it was the first lady who lingered.

She brought up the rear, her head barely visible above the crowd. Her husband slowed to wait for her. She had a wide smile on her face -- as history caught up with the future.

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