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First Lady fascination and the glamour of Obama


For many years I aspired to the lifestyle of an ambassador’s wife. I imagined spending my days planning complex and culturally correct menus for endless dinner parties at which the fates of entire countries would be decided and my carefully constructed seating plan would make a sterling contribution.

I imagined living all over the world and having a contacts list that spanned several continents. I am happy to report that reality has sunk in and I no longer aspire to be an ambassador’s wife.

Another job I do not aspire to is that of First Lady. Now there is a thankless task if ever I saw one. At least when you are an ambassador’s wife no one necessarily blames you for everything that goes wrong with the country, or for every unpopular decision a president makes. Just try being a First Lady and see. Or alternatively, ask Michelle Obama.

This week Mrs Obama was just next door in South Africa. I was intrigued to see on the previsit PR that she was scheduled to meet with Graça Machel, wife of the former president Nelson Mandela, but little was said about her meeting with current First Lady.

Of course the First Lady issue in South Africa is a tricky one given that there is more than one, and I can imagine the dilemma this would present to Mrs Obama’s protocol people.

Anyway, as it turns out she did meet with one of President Zuma’s wives, as the following Twitter update from a Washington Post correspondent reveals:

“She began the day, without her mother and the children, at private meetings at the US Embassy compound in Pretoria and a visit with Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, one of the three wives of South African President Jacob Zuma, at the presidential mansion in that city. Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist who has been criticised by advocates of women’s rights here, was not present.”

Enough said.

What is of interest is the fact that her visit with Graça Machel was pre-planned. And just looking at the pictures, one can’t help but conclude that there was a camaraderie between the two women, duly highlighted by their matching poise, grace and elegance. A little further down in the same piece from The Washington Post we read:

“Obama spent more time and appeared relaxed with Graça Machel, Mandela’s wife and the former First Lady of Mozambique. Machel took Obama’s arm as she and her family toured her through the archives with the foundation’s staff.

“When Machel lost sight of Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, she called out, ‘Are you there, Ma?’ Robinson smiled and pulled in closer.” While the official visit with Graça Machel was planned, a visit to the Mandelas’ home was a pleasant add-on.
Speaking at a Young African Women Leaders’ Forum, Obama showed her esteem for Graça Machel saying, “ I want to thank her for her lifetime of service as a champion for women and children.”

I couldn’t find any quotes from her concerning Mrs Zuma. So we see that even in the lofty peaks of social ascendancy that we imagine wives of presidents and ambassadors exist in, there is some ranking.

Whether this is created by the individual herself, the media, the general public, or a combination of all three, I do not know, and in any event that is the subject of another column, another day.

Last year, BBC Network Africa’s Véronique Edwards got what I consider to be a dream assignment (Mr Editor, are you paying attention?), interviewing five first ladies of African countries:

Sierra Leone’s Sia Koroma, Namibia’s Penehupifo Pohamba, Ghana’s Ernestina Mills, Zambia’s Thandiwe Banda and Uganda’s Janet Museveni.

What a delight to peek into the lives and styles of African women with an incredible amount of latent power and who have it in their capacity to change the destiny of this continent, without first running for office themselves.

Oh, the questions I would ask them! The more I think about it the more I suspect it would be the lectures I would give them!

In researching this piece I ended up trawling through piles and piles of photographs of Michelle Obama. I have to confess, I am hooked.

I was a fan of Jackie Kennedy’s style and read as much as I could find about her when my friends were focusing on more contemporary role models.

Now I find in Michelle Obama the same instinctive sophistication, the same smart self-knowledge, the same inaccessible glamour and a new dash of fashion mischief that appeals to the unconventional sprite in me.

Beyond the undeniable visual appeal, Michelle Obama seems also to be intelligent and thoughtful.

A friend who met her in South Africa this week described her as “warm”.

Certainly her words would seem to confirm this. “And I am here because I know that true leadership, leadership that lifts families, leadership that sustains communities and transforms nations, that kind of leadership rarely starts in palaces or parliaments.

“That kind of leadership is not limited only to those of a certain age or status. And that kind of leadership is not just about dramatic events that change the course of history in an instant.

“Instead, true leadership often happens with the smallest acts, in the most unexpected places, by the most unlikely individuals.”

So, yes, I am sold on the glamour of Amai Obama. But I’m happy to leave the jobs of first ladies and ambassadors’ wives to those who do them best!

Thembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments can be sent to localdrummer@newsday.co.zw. Follow Thembe on www.twitter/localdrummer

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