When Jill Biden touches down Wednesday on a five-day trip to Namibia and Kenya, it will be on her remarkable sixth official solo visit to the continent as a principal of a presidential administration, this being her first as first lady following five visits as second lady during the Obama administration.
“This whole trip will be exciting, and we have a lot to accomplish,” Biden said to reporters moments before departing. The long-hoped-for visit comes as President Biden closes out a high-stakes trip to Ukraine and Poland to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, and the two trips have intertwined goals. In this case, the first lady’s travel is part of an aggressive show of U.S. support for African nations, as China’s influence over the continent grows and at a time when U.S. intelligence suggests China is considering providing arms to Russia, a development that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said would be a “serious problem.”
The first lady’s trip also comes just months after the president welcomed to Washington leaders from 49 African countries and pledged that “the United States is all in on Africa’s future.” During that three-day summit in December the president announced that he would be going to Africa this summer, and that seven other top members of the administration, including Jill Biden and Vice President Harris, would be making trips this year to show their commitment to partnering with Africa. The first lady’s trip is the first by a senior White House principal to fulfill that promise.
“On a broad policy level, it’s been a long-standing issue that the West’s influence on the African continent has been eroding as China has been increasing their engagement there,” said Matt Carotenuto, a professor of African history at St. Lawrence University. “If you look at Kenya, they’ve gotten huge loans from China to fund infrastructure over the last 15 to 20 years. Kenya’s been a great strategic ally and supporter of the U.S., but this is an area where the administration does need to double down if they want to maintain that influence as money has flowed from other areas.”
According to the White House, Biden’s visit will focus on empowerment of women and youth, and promoting “our shared values in the area of democracy, health cooperation and economic prosperity.” Specifically, she’ll be meeting with the first ladies of both countries, with whom she developed relationships at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Gender-based violence as well as HIV support will be themes of events she’ll engage in, with larger discussions on reproductive health particularly crucial as PEPFAR — the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, started during the George W. Bush administration — is up for reauthorization this summer. In Namibia, which she is visiting for the first time, Biden will be making a speech to college-age students to highlight the role of youths in democracy, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where 70 percent of the population is under 30.
In Kenya, which she’s visiting for the third time, a centerpiece of her trip will be highlighting food insecurity in the Horn of Africa, which is experiencing its worst drought in decades — and how the crisis has been worsened by a slowing flow of humanitarian dollars, and by China’s rhetorical and political support of Russia in Ukraine.
“She was really motivated to use her return her third visit to Kenya as a way to draw attention to what is a dire and immediate food crisis that cannot wait for further intervention and mobilization from the international community,” said a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about internal planning processes. “So we really did intend to leverage her trip as a way to signal the administration’s continued leadership and partnership with the region in addressing that crisis, but to also really help generate additional support before it’s too late for those who are most impacted.”
In her memoir “Where the Light Enters,” Biden wrote about going to the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2014 with her granddaughter, Finnegan, then 14, and driving on “winding red roads that snaked through the hills like battle scars” to a hospital that treats women and girls who had been raped by gangs and soldiers. “The stories haunted me: women of all ages gruesomely, brutally tortured as an act of war,” she wrote. “Often wounded beyond recognition, unable to control their bladders and bowels, these women were turned out of their homes and had to walk for days to find refuge at Panzi hospital.” Biden will be joined by another granddaughter, Naomi, on this trip.
Biden’s Africa trip has been in the works almost as long as she’s been first lady, with several attempts to bring it to fruition halted by various domestic and international events. “Africa is very special to her. She loves the people. She loves the culture. She loves the landscape,” said Michael LaRosa, a managing director at the Penta Group and former press secretary to the first lady. “She’s had powerful experiences there during previous visits, and she memorializes how much they meant to her in her book. So, it’s no surprise she’s going back as first lady.”
This trip to Africa is her fourth solo international trip of the administration, following the Olympics in Japan in 2021 and back-to-back trips in summer 2022, including a trip into the Ukrainian war zone on Mother’s Day to meet with first lady Olena Zelenska and then a tour of Costa Rica, Panama and Ecuador before the United States hosted the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. “She sees her role on the international stage as a champion of her husband and the administration through soft diplomacy,” said LaRosa. “She wants to be there as a representative of him, but she doesn’t consider herself, and nor does she want to be, a foreign policy partner or adviser to him. He has plenty of those, and she doesn’t view foreign policy as part of her role.”
Africa has been a regular destination for first ladies, going back to Pat Nixon’s eight-day trip to Liberia, Ghana and the Ivory Coast in 1972. Hillary Clinton took her daughter, Chelsea, on a two-week tour in 1999, and was so moved by Senegal’s House of Slaves and its “door of no return” that she brought President Bill Clinton back to see it on a visit the following year.
Laura Bush made visits to Africa a centerpiece of her time as first lady; she took seven trips to 15 countries in Africa by the end of her eight years in the White House, extensively promoting PEPFAR and the President’s Malaria Initiative. On one visit, she and daughter Jenna Bush spent a church service holding children infected with HIV in Rwanda, as a way of lessening the stigma of the disease.
Michelle Obama went to South Africa to meet with Nelson Mandela, and then returned a few months later for Mandela’s funeral. In her husband’s second term she made several trips, sometimes with daughters Sasha and Malia, to highlight a program called “Let Girls Learn” that concentrated on middle-school girls’ education and the issue of girls dropping out of school when they get their periods.
Melania Trump’s only international trip was a visit to Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and Egypt, during which she received criticism for her choice to wear a white pith helmet, and which involved visiting an orphanage and a photo shoot in front of the Egyptian pyramids.
Whatever the domestic perception of a trip, it’s almost always seen as an honor and is positively received in the host country. Anita McBride, who was Laura Bush’s chief of staff and now runs the First Ladies Institute at American University, recalls when Tanzania had just become a PEPFAR recipient country, and the president and his wife got tested for HIV on national TV to chip away at the stigma. “That was a really bold move on their part,” said McBride, “and it made it so that when Mrs. Bush visited Tanzania, she could really talk publicly about what an important message that was for the leaders of their country to send to their citizens.”