First Lady’s Visit to Africa ‘Shaping Up to Be Emotional and Educational Journey’

June 21, 2011 - 5:00 AM
Three generations of Obama family begin African trek

Michelle Obama in Africa

First lady Michelle Obama holds a bouquet of flowers, and daughters Malia, right, and Sasha, are draped in blankets given to them upon landing in Pretoria, en route to Johannesburg, South Africa, Monday, June 20, 2011, as they begin their week long trip to Africa. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) - First lady Michelle Obama embarked on a goodwill visit to sub-Saharan Africa on Monday, a weeklong stay designed to show that America cares about the continent's issues and people.

Accompanied by her two daughters, her mother, a niece and nephew, Mrs. Obama planned a trip through South Africa and Botswana that was also shaping up to be an emotional and educational journey for the three generations of Obamas.

Many of the first lady's stops will highlight the legacy of Nelson Mandela and others like him whose struggles and sacrifices ultimately led to the undoing of apartheid, South Africa's system of racial separation.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison, including 18 years on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, for his role in the anti-apartheid movement. After he was released in 1990, he went on to become the country's first post-apartheid president and its first black elected leader, swept into office in 1994. He served one term and remains a revered elder statesman.

A meeting between America's first black first lady and South Africa's first black president was hoped for but remained unlikely as of Monday. At age 92, Mandela is fragile and his health determines when he can receive visitors. Mrs. Obama was, however, meeting Tuesday with Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, as well as one of the wives of Jacob Zuma, the current president.

Mrs. Obama received a warm welcome upon her arrival Monday night at Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, after 18 hours and more than 8,100 miles of travel. She was greeted by Ambassador Donald Gips and his family on a nippy night. Daughters Malia, 12, and Sasha, 10, were wrapped in colorful South African blankets to ward off the chill.

Throughout the week, the first lady will promote youth leadership, education and HIV/AIDS prevention programs. The high point of the week is a speech Wednesday to a U.S.-sponsored gathering of young African women leaders from across sub-Saharan Africa.

The first lady will pay tribute to Mandela and the struggle against apartheid at many of her stops, including visits to his foundation, the Apartheid Museum and Robben Island. She also was scheduled to meet in Cape Town with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end apartheid.

She heads to Gaborone, Botswana, on Friday for a visit with President Ian Khama and other events. The trip ends with private family time on the weekend, including a dinner at a game park and a safari before the Obamas return to Washington late Monday.

This is Mrs. Obama's fourth time visiting Africa, but these are her first stops in South Africa and Botswana.

It's also the second time she has traveled outside the United States without President Barack Obama, whose father was from Kenya. In April 2010, she traveled alone to Mexico City and Haiti, after its devastating earthquake.