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Jill Biden tells young Namibians ‘you are the keepers of democracy’

In the keystone moment of her trip to Africa, the first lady spoke to more than a thousand students at Namibia University of Science and Technology

Jill Biden speaks during an event at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. (Tara Mette/AFP/Getty Images)
7 min

Windhoek, NAMIBIA — Before a crowd of 1,300 African university students, the wife of the oldest president in U.S. history told young Namibians that “you are the keepers of democracy.”

The Friday morning speech on an outdoor stage at Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) was the keystone moment of Jill Biden’s two-country, five-day trip to Africa.

Students wearing pinstriped school uniforms, soccer jerseys for British squads and T-shirts with slogans like “Free Namibia” crowded onto ledges and in a few instances on each others’ shoulders to get a better look. Although not greeted with a standing ovation — unlike Namibia’s first lady, Monica Geingos, who got the kind of reception usually reserved the likes of Beyoncé — the crowd rose to its feet after Biden’s impassioned, 11-minute speech.

Biden told the crowd that even in the United States, a country that is hundreds of years older than the Republic of Namibia, Americans still have to work to defend and strengthen democracy. “We often tell young people that you’re the future. And it’s true,” she said from the stage. “But sometimes, that message can sound like: ‘Wait.’ Wait for some far-off finish line that makes you wiser or more powerful. Wait for your communities to listen to what you have to say. Wait, while others build the future for you. I know, however, that there are things you want to change now. There are problems that you can solve now. And you have gifts to offer the world now.” With each “now,” her delivery got more forceful.

The first lady’s trip to this desert country and Kenya, a long-standing U.S. ally, is part of an aggressive strategy by the Biden administration to shore up relations on the continent in the face of China’s growing influence there. During the U.S.-African Leaders Summit that the administration hosted in Washington in December, President Biden had announced that eight top members of administration would be traveling to various countries around Africa this year — which includes his own trip in the summer. Vice President Harris, too, is on the list, but Jill Biden is notably the first of the administration’s four principals to visit sub-Saharan Africa. Her trip in many ways seems like a precursor to her husband’s.

Jill Biden embarks on Africa trip to Namibia and Kenya

This is Biden’s sixth trip to Africa, following five official visits while she was second lady during the Obama years. Although she’s been to Kenya three times, Namibia was a more surprising choice. The vast country on the Southeastern coast of the continent has not been a top diplomatic priority for decades. Its population is just 2.1 million (roughly the same number of people as Brussels, if they were spread out over a land mass half the size of Alaska) and much of its territory is taken up by the Namib desert, which is so desolate that George Miller used it as a location to film “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

“One of the reasons Namibia does not make international headlines is because it is a functioning democracy with the fundamentals in place, so we have major media presence here today, so thank you for that,” Geingos said to Biden during a speech Thursday. Al Gore, when he was vice president, was the last sitting member of a presidential administration to visit Namibia, and he made that trip in 1996.

Biden’s visit also falls on the first anniversary of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and she plans to highlight the food insecurity in drought-torn Kenya that President Biden has said is partly due to the ongoing conflict. “Putin tried to starve the world, blocking the ports of the Black Sea to stop Ukraine from exporting its grain, exacerbating a global food crisis that hit the developing nations of Africa especially hard,” the president said in his Tuesday speech in Poland. “And this week my wife Jill Biden is traveling to Africa to help bring attention to this critical issue.” Africa experts have also noted that an unintended result of so much of the world’s humanitarian aid flowing into Ukraine is that those finite funds do not make it to the continent.

The need to counteract China’s ties to Africa had gained some urgency in recent weeks. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated Thursday that U.S. intelligence suggests that China is considering sending weapons to Russia, just as Putin has mounted a second offensive. Like China, Russia has made direct inroads in Africa, often by providing private military aid. On Thursday, 15 African counties voted to abstain from the U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for Russia to pull its troops out of Ukraine, including Namibia’s neighbors of South Africa and Angola, and Kenya’s neighbor, Ethiopia, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, between the two.

A first lady’s visit can bring attention to countries and causes, but in her speech that preceded Biden’s, Geingos acknowledged that being a country’s first lady is not the mark of any kind of special skill. “We are here because we married men who became presidents. Let’s be honest,” said Geingos. “So when young girls come to me and say oh, I want to be just like you. I also want to be a first lady. I say no. Don’t. You must want to be a president.”

Later she used Biden, who has maintained her position as a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, as an example for the students of why they should not skip class. “She was telling me, when she arrives in D.C. on Monday she will go to class on Tuesday,” said Geimgos. “That is commitment. That’s what professionalism looks like. Many of you after a late night the next morning, you’ve got reasons why you’re not going to class. Now after a 15-hour flight back home, she goes to class the next day to speak to her young people.”

The young people Biden was speaking to Friday morning are part of the first generation of Namibians who’ve grown up free; on Thursday, it celebrated the 30th anniversary of convening the National Parliament for the first time. Biden’s first stop on the trip had been to lay a wreath at a war memorial outside Windhoek for those who had fought for liberation from South Africa, and won, after 24 years of war, in 1990. When the first lady said that Joe Biden had talked about how much he admired Namibians “struggle against apartheid,” and how they’d inspired him to speak up as a young Senator, a murmur rippled through the crowd. Apartheid is something largely left in the past for the 70 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa that is under the age of 30.

Madalena Domingos, a 20 year-old NUST student in transport management said she’d gone from skeptical to inspired after the speech. “I was more excited than I thought I would be,” she said. “I liked the fact that she actually spoke about how we are progressing so well and that Namibians are leaders, and when she talked about women empowerment, I, as a female, felt kind of inspired to do my best.”