Michelle Obama, who is accompanying her husband to Tuesday’s memorial service for former South African leader Nelson Mandela, made her first trip to the nation in the summer of 2011. For the popular first lady, that visit was part diplomacy and part personal pilgrimage.
The personal was evident in Obama’s interactions with Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel.
Obama and Machel share more than the rarefied experience of being first ladies. The women, born on different continents nearly two decades apart, are both advocates for children and wellness. And like Obama, Machel has a law degree.
In Mozambique — where Machel lived prior to marrying Mandela — she served as minister of education and culture for a decade and is credited with boosting the number of children enrolled in school.
The two women got to know each another as Obama toured Mandela’s archives at his foundation during her 2011 visit to South Africa and Botswana.
Together, Machel (pronounced mah-SHELL) and Obama appeared relaxed. Machel, who is in her late 60s, took Obama’s arm and guided her through a collection of letters, photos and years of desk calendars that Mandela kept while in prison for 27 years.
“Wow,” Obama said as she looked at Mandela’s meticulous record-keeping. Obama, who was accompanied by her mother, daughters, niece and nephew, later described the experience as emotional.
Machel, for her part, tended to the Obama family with care. At one point on the tour, when Machel lost sight of Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, she called out, “Are you there, Ma?” Robinson smiled and pulled in closer.
Obama later praised Machel’s warmth and said the two had discussed everything from the complicated racial history of South Africa to the potential for impact the Obamas could have even after their time in the White House.
Machel, who married Mandela on his 80th birthday in 1998 — two years after his divorce from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela — served as first lady of Mozambique prior to her first husband’s death. She continued her advocacy work after her time as first lady.
While Obama was in South Africa, Machel brought the U.S. first lady into her world. Soon after the tour of Mandela’s archives, Machel took Obama, her daughters and mother to the home she shared with Mandela to meet the then-ailing leader. Obama described the meeting as akin to a family reunion.
“Walking into the home — we had had an opportunity to meet with Graça, who is gracious and warm, and she’s a very easy person to be with and passionate,” Obama said, describing the visit. “It sort of felt like going home, because we . . . met like half the family there.”
The following day, Machel and Obama were together again. In Soweto, Machel introduced the first lady before an audience of young women gathered to hear Obama speak about the connections between the two nations and the promise of female leadership on the continent.
Onstage, Machel welcomed Obama as “a daughter of African heritage” and “queen of our world.”
Backstage, Obama, Machel and Baleka Mbete, an advocate for equality and development in South Africa, talked about the power of remembering the past.
“Sometimes in the rush to have things over, to make reconciliation work, everybody thought they had to just forget about the past and not talk about it, because you didn’t want to dwell in it,” Obama said later in a roundtable interview with reporters. “But the truth is, is that healing is being able to talk about it so that you can move through.”
It was another point of agreement between the women.