Melania Trump began her week-long sojourn to Africa in Accra, Ghana. Landing Tuesday morning, the first lady was greeted on the tarmac by Ghanaian first lady Rebecca Akufo-Addo and a bouquet of flowers wrapped in kente cloth followed by a performance of dancing and drumming.
Later, she stopped by Greater Accra Regional Hospital where she visited with new mothers and held a baby before passing out miniature teddy bears and blankets emblazoned with the logo for Be Best, her child-welfare initiative.
From Ghana, Trump will travel to Malawi, then Kenya, and finally to Egypt, an itinerary that places the typically private first lady half a world away from her headline-dominating husband — and in the global spotlight.
Although the first lady’s trip is considered a gesture of goodwill, it also appears to some critics of the Trump administration to be out of step with her husband’s policies. Her stops will largely highlight programs funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, even as the administration has proposed massive cuts to USAID’s budget.
Later this week, the first lady is expected to tour an elephant and rhino conservatory in Kenya, even though the Trump administration loosened regulations on trophy hunting and the import of elephant tusks and other animal parts. In addition, prominent members of the Trump family are big-game hunters.
As she greets dignitaries in the four countries, Melania Trump plans to engage in the kind of “soft diplomacy” expected of first ladies. Unlike her predecessors, Trump has to contend with the baggage of her husband’s belittling comments about African nations that made headlines across the continent.
But USAID Administrator Mark Green, who is accompanying the first lady in Ghana, said the trip serves to “symbolize American values and engagement. It spotlights and raises the profile of American programs in action.” And he said Trump’s focus on children drew her to the region. “She had genuine interest in youth,” he said.
The median age of Africa’s more than 1 billion people is only 19.
Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s spokeswoman, said the trip is consistent with her platform and Trump administration policy, noting that the president has said, “The U.S. is the world’s largest giver of foreign aid.”
“Africa remains a priority for this administration, and I believe the first lady’s trip through the continent will showcase just that,” she said.
In Ghana and the other countries the first lady plans to visit, there has been little buzz about the trip, in part because details have been tightly held, except for some social-media muttering about Trump coming to take selfies with children and animals. Animal conservationists also have been discussing the Kenya leg of the visit, especially because Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are avid game hunters. A photograph of Trump Jr. holding a knife and a dead elephant’s tail after a hunt in Zimbabwe in 2011 went viral on social media.
“The policies set by the United States have significant impact on our ability to manage our wildlife sustainably,” said Kaddu Sebunya, president of the African Wildlife Foundation in Nairobi. “We hope that the first lady’s visit will illuminate the enormous benefit conservation provides to our continent, people and economies . . . [and] will result in a reversal of some of the funding cuts to biodiversity conservation.”
A first lady’s goals on such a trip are typically twofold, said Myra Gutin, a communication professor at Rider University who studies first ladies. They highlight their initiatives — in Trump’s case, that’s her Be Best campaign aimed at improving the well-being of children. And then there’s the diplomatic mission. On that front, Trump may have a harder task than previous first ladies, Gutin said.
Trump had long planned this trip. “This was her idea,” Grisham said. “In fact, she has always envisioned Africa for her first solo international swing. She is eager to educate herself about each country — history, culture, challenges, successes.”
What does Trump hope to accomplish on her first solo trip abroad? Those goals are not completely clear, said J. Peter Pham, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
“It’s incumbent on her to describe what her objectives are, and then we can assess whether it’s a success,” Pham said.
During the first leg of her journey, Trump also visited with Ghana’s first lady, Akufo-Addo, at the presidential palace. The two women had tea and exchanged gifts, according to journalists traveling with Trump. Trump brought a silver Chippendale tray etched with an image of the White House. The tray was carried in a leather case bearing Trump’s signature: “First Lady Melania Trump.” In return, Trump was presented with a kente cloth and an artifact.
Trump also visited privately with officials at the U.S. Embassy.
The Trump administration has sought to significantly reduce USAID funding to the continent, cutting it by as much as 30 percent in its proposed budgets. That generated alarm among many in humanitarian circles that it would close U.S. developmental and health programs and diminish efforts to combat AIDS and malaria. Congress ultimately voted to restore the funding.
USAID, which worked with the first lady’s office on the trip, has spent more than $47 billion on AIDS, malaria and other health programs over the past decade.
Trump will spend a second day in Ghana before heading to Malawi, where she is expected to focus on children’s literacy.
Max Bearak in Nairobi contributed to this report.