5 October 2018

Africa: Ever Wonder What Africa's First Ladies Do?

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Photo: Joseph Nyadzayo/The Herald
First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa mingles with other first ladies at the Organisation of African First Ladies against HIV/AIDS meeting at African Union Building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

US First Lady Melania Trump made the first official visit to Africa under her husband's presidency this week to promote child welfare and conservation. Africa has more than 50 first ladies. DW looks at a few of them.

The good housekeeper

Fatima Bio took on the role of Sierra Leone's first lady when her husband Julius Maada Bio took office in March and before long she earned a reputation for good housekeeping. The former Nollywood actress, scriptwriter and director is usually up early to do the rounds at various government ministries to make sure affairs are running smoothly.

Bio is on the 2018 list of Global Top 100 Most Influential People of African Descent. "The greatest achievement is not the amount of awards you receive but the lives of Africans you have changed," she has said.

She has challenged Africa's leaders to role out free education, taking their cue from her husband. Bio also campaigns against teen pregnancy and early marriage. She runs a charity supporting women with breast cancer.

Sierra Leoneans admire her strength and courage in a country where first ladies have never really been so visible at the forefront of politics.

Bio began her movie career in London and starred in Nigerian-made films such as Expedition Africa, Shameful Deceit and Mirror Boy. In 2013, Bio won the pan-African Woman of the Year Award from All African media in and won the prize for Best Female Actress at the African Oscars in Washington.

She won the Miss Africa beauty pageant in 2000. She holds honors in performing art and journalism. The Bios have one child.

Out of the kitchen

Aisha Buhari has been Nigeria's first lady since May 2015. In Africa's most populous country, Buhari is regarded as the first to take her official role seriously, unlike her predecessors who were considered rude, arrogant or power drunk.

Buhari is bold and known to challenge those in power. In 2016, she shocked Nigerians - and perhaps her husband President Mohammadu Buhari too - when she threatened not to support his bid for re-election. His government was hijacked by a few individuals, she said.

The president shot back during a visit abroad, saying he had "superior knowledge over her" and that "she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room."

Like other Nigerian first ladies Mrs. Buhari runs a humanitarian project called "Future Assured Program". The project aims at improving the wellbeing of Nigerian women, children and adolescents through better health, education and economic empowerment.

She started her career as a cosmetologist and beautician holds a degree in public administration and a master's degree in international affairs and strategic studies. She is Buhari's second wife.

The Buharis are from the north of Nigeria, where it is not really culturally acceptable for a woman to criticize her husand, let alone challenge him in public. The couple has five children.

Communicates in hashtags

Jeanette Kagame has gathered more than 80,000 followers on Twitter and a string of hashtags since she became Rwanda's first lady in 2000 when Paul Kagame was elected president.

Kagame is an African Woman of Exellence Award winner. The business and management science graduate is seen as a champion in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The Imbuto Foundation, an initiative she founded, supports families affected by the condition. She has also been particularly active among Africa's first ladies.

In 2001, she hosted the first African First Ladies' Summit on Children and HIV/AIDS Prevention and co-founded the organization of African First Ladies against HIV/AIDS a year later. The initiative includes various projects to advance education and develop society. Some Rwandans argue that their first lady could play a bigger role in promoting women.

The Kagames were married in 1989 and have four children.

The president's powerhouse

Margaret Gakuo Kenyatta, who became Kenya's first lady after disputed elections in April 2013, is known as President Uhuru Kenyatta's powerhouse. She had come to public attention campaigning along her husband the previous year. To some she appears shy and perhaps timid but others say her charisma contributed to her husband's success.

The United Nations named her Kenya's Person of Year. She advocates for better healthcare for women and children through her Beyond Zero initiative, founded in 2014. Millions of shillings have gone into the cause.

Kenyans say the president sees his wife as a friend, partner and supporter. Many Kenyans see her as a role model and like her down-to-earth nature.

Invisible

In Tanzania, some people have to think hard about who the first lady is exactly. Janeth Magufuli campaigned alongside her husband John Magufuli in the runup to to his election in late 2015. She was by his side when he was inaugurated but has remained out of the public eye since.

The president has publically stated that as his wife and she has to cook for him.

As first lady, Magufuli - a primary school teacher for more than 20 years until 2015 - has flipped the role previously held by very active women who built foundations to work for the advancement of Tanzania.

The Magufuli's have three children.

The major general

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir promoted his wife Mary Ayen Mayardit to the rank of major general in the army in August, while he and his arch-rival Riek Machar were negotiating a power-sharing peace deal.

Ayen, or Mama Mary Ayen as she is known, was seen as a committed liberation fighter in the 21-year struggle for independence from Sudan and is regarded as having influence over decisions that determine the fate of the fledgling country.

She keeps a low public profile but appears to provoke mixed feelings among South Sudanese. Ayen has been accused of fueling and profiting from the conflict in South Sudan and credited with having pressured Kiir into signing the peace deal.

She is not highly educated. Concern, a charitable organization she founded, helps the vulnerable in the war-torn country - especially women and orphans.

Simon Waakhe, Claudia Anthony and Sam Olukoya contributed to this report.

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