The East African (Nairobi)

15 March 2004

Africa: An 'African' First Lady for the US?

Washington, DC — AS THE United States presidential race intensifies in the coming months, Africa - and African identity - may emerge as topics of debate.

Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of probable Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, has a blood connection to Southern Africa and has at times referred to herself, controversially, as an African American.

Senator Kerry himself has also stirred a row by declaring that he hopes to become the second black president of the United States.

"President Clinton was often known as the first black president," Senator Kerry recently told a radio interviewer. "I wouldn't be upset if I could earn the right to be the second."

Some African-Americans, usually speaking at least semi-humourously, suggested at times during Bill Clinton's presidency that he could be seen as black because of his cultural affinities and political views.

One civil rights leader reacted critically to Senator Kerry's remarks. "John Kerry is not a black man," said Paula Diane Harris, founder of the Andrew Young National Centre for Social Change. "He is a privileged white man who has no idea what it is in to be a poor white in this country, let alone a black man."

The candidate's wife is also white and wealthy.

She was born in colonial Mozambique in 1938 with the name Maria Teresa Thierstein Simoes Ferreira. Her Portuguese father, Dr Jose Simoes Ferreira Jnr, and her Italian-French mother, Irene Thierstein, raised their family in a comfortable home overlooking the Indian Ocean in the colony's capital city, Lourenco Marques (now Maputo).

The growing girl did come into contact with poor Africans as she accompanied her father, an oncologist and tropical disease specialist, on his medical rounds.

But Mrs Heinz Kerry generally depicts her African childhood in idyllic terms. According to a recent account in The Baltimore Sun newspaper, Ms Heinz Kerry recalls "hanging upside down from guava trees in her backyard, chasing snakes and bugs, contemplating the balance between nature and human beings while sitting under the starry night skies."

"The scenes seem torn from The Lion King or Out of Africa," the Sun observed.

Mrs Heinz Kerry attended the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa during the late 1950s - a time when white supremacists were consolidating their apartheid system. She says she frequently participated in student protests against the oppression of South African blacks.

After earning a languages degree from Witwatersrand in 1960, Ms Heinz Kerry studied in Geneva, Switzerland, to become an interpreter. It was there that she met John Heinz, the heir to an American ketchup fortune. The couple married in 1966 and had three sons. Ms Heinz Kerry became an American citizen in 1971.

She has not returned to Mozambique for the past 45 years. "I have basically not wanted to go back home since, because I just didn't want to see all the kind of changes," Ms Heinz Kerry told The Baltimore Sun.

Her parents, however, did remain in Mozambique during the anti-colonial guerrilla war and for a time following the triumph of the socialist Frelimo forces. But they moved first to Portugal and later to the United States as Mozambique continued to be wracked by armed conflict and as white former colonialists lost their homes and wealth.

Dr Simoes Ferreira died in 1989 and Ms Thierstein in 1997.

Through a family foundation, Ms Heinz Kerry has made some financial contributions to NGO programmes in Mozambique, according to The Baltimore Sun. She would give more, a foundation official told the newspaper, if she were sure the money would be managed properly.

John Heinz, who went on to become a Republican member of the US Senate, was killed in a plane crash in 1991. His widow inherited a fortune estimated at $500 million.

In 1995, she married Senator John Kerry, who had divorced some years earlier. He has two daughters from that first marriage.

Although Ms Heinz Kerry moves comfortably among the American political and social elites, "my roots are African," she said around the time of her marriage to Senator Kerry. "The birds I remember, the fruits I ate, the trees I climbed - they're African."

But her claim more than a decade ago to being an "African American" drew sharply negative reactions. At the time, her spokesman explained that Ms Heinz Kerry had used the term in unhyphenated form. "African-hyphen-American belongs to blacks," the spokesman said.

Clarence Page, a black nationally syndicated columnist, takes a sympathetic view of Ms Heinz Kerry's efforts to identify with Africa. "She may not be black," Mr Page wrote in a March 10 commentary, "but she's a lot more African than most Americans."

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