NAIROBI — First lady Melania Trump went into full tourist mode Friday in Kenya. The garb was “safari casual.” The venue was a sanctuary for baby elephants. The overall effect was photo-friendly, just a tad awkward and without any major gaffes.
That also sums up her trip to Ghana, Malawi and Kenya so far after visits to historical sites, schools and orphanages (both elephant and human).
It has been low-key, mostly silent and lacking any big stumbles — even as many Africans were left scratching their heads about her choice to come in the first place.
Until now, the scant attention on Africa by the White House has been mostly stinging: President Trump’s derogatory comments about its people and one tweet appearing to back invented claims about mass killings of white South African farmers.
As she prepares to depart Kenya for the last stop, in Egypt, her trip to Africa seems to have left the few that have watched it closely with a pleasant, if vague, impression.
“I don’t think the lack of domestic attention in Africa has anything to do with President Trump’s dismissive perceptions about Africa,” said Elijah Munyi, a professor who studies U.S.-Africa relations at U.S.-International University in Nairobi. “I think Melania Trump’s visit is a lot quieter than, say, Michelle Obama’s or even Laura Bush’s because she is not well known in Africa.”
Both of the previous two first ladies were accompanied by their husbands on their trips to Africa, which raised the profile of the visits. But other factors deepened their significance. Michelle Obama tried to trace possible ancestral roots while in Ghana, and Barack Obama’s father was born and raised in Kenya.
George W. Bush has a portion of Ghana’s National Highway 1 named after him, in part out of gratitude for an enormously successful HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention program he championed. The effort lives on as the bulk of nonsecurity assistance the United States gives to African countries.
Melania Trump’s visit has centered on tours of sites funded through American foreign aid. Ghana, Malawi and Kenya are all major recipients of U.S. funds, with around $1 billion going to Kenya alone.
President Trump has proposed slashing the funding for the United States’ largest donor agency, USAID, by a third in two consecutive budget proposals, but has been overruled by Congress both times.
On Friday, Melania Trump was accompanied by Kenya’s first lady, Margaret Kenyatta, to the elephant orphanage on the outskirts of Nairobi.
“It is no surprise she’s coming to see wildlife — it is glorious, and America has given tens of millions to conserving it here,” said Paula Kahumbu, a prominent Kenyan conservationist.
“The most important thing she could do is say — as a first lady and fashion icon — that she will never wear ivory. I hope seeing the elephants will make her understand what will be lost if stronger anti-poaching measures aren’t taken,” she added.
Kahumbu suggested the United States and African countries could cooperate more closely to crack down on poaching cartels that operate internationally.
At the orphanage, Trump was dressed — as was much of the traveling press — in safari-style garb. While Trump’s high leather boots were fashionable, she also chose to carry along a pith helmet, a decidedly colonial artifact most commonly seen these days in black-and-white photographs of Victorian-era explorers.
The helmet will likely be a minor matter. Tourists in Africa, especially Americans, have come to be expected to show up in jungle-ready, beige catalogue-ordered safari gear — even if most of the hundreds of thousands of them who visit the continent each year stay in relatively luxurious accommodation.
Despite the relative banality of Trump’s sightseeing — and the shadow of her husband’s perceived neglect, or even disrespect, toward Africans — some were willing to acknowledge she can be separated from the president’s actions and perhaps influence change upon her return to the White House.
“Many Ghanains are saying that she is the nicer of the Trumps,” said Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, an opposition party leader in Ghana’s parliament. “Melania is an immigrant, too. She is from a humble background . . . There’s a soft spot. She can become an ally, she can give her husband fresher perspectives about Africa. We need someone to tell him now that Africa is not a basket case as he thinks.”