Something for the First Ladies

Adventures of Dan Fulani

Email: Twitter: @dan_pullo

Dan FulaniWithin the week, I read an emotional and insightful encounter CNN’s Christiane Amanpour had with Graça Machel, the widow of two African icons, former South African President Nelson Mandela and former Mozambican President Samora Machel.

Here are the snippets of what she said:  On her being the former wife of two former comrade Presidents, she said: “You know, these incidents of life, which we never plan for it – it just happens. If you ask me how I ended up being loved and loving these two extraordinary human beings, I wouldn’t be able to explain. But it did happen. So my response to you is really I am humbled, and I would like people to expect to see in me more than that rural girl who happened to have some responsibilities in my own country and somehow globally, trying to do my best.

“But let me tell you something: Personally, they were just my husbands. You can call them – I mean, icon; you can call whatever. But the relationship I had with them, it was the relationship of husband and wife. We shared any detail of life as any other family. … And of course I draw inspiration in those two human beings. But I’m too small. And I’m not going to try to feel that I have a special responsibility to building their legacy.”

On falling in love with Mandela, she said with a laugh: “Well, Christiane, I’m sure you have fallen in love sometime in your life. And you know what it means? That simple connection, which you have with a human being with whom you have a special affection. After coming out of jail, and with obligations he had as a head of state, it was only when he stepped down where he really began to concentrate on family matters.

“I think because he was calm, he was not under the pressure of huge responsibility, both of us, we just enjoyed being together, spend time together as human beings. And I think that’s what he enjoyed in the sunset of his life.”

After her period of mourning, Mama Machel said she is now dedicating herself to Mandela’s dying cause. “In the sunset of Madiba’s life, he was confronted with an experience of a child who died because he did not have the qualified services which were required to save this boy. That has enacted in him a real commitment to say we cannot allow this to continue. And that’s when he started to say, we have to build a specialized hospital for children.”

She is working now, as chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health to work for women’s’ and child’s health in Africa.

Even before Amanpour encountered this beautiful woman who was the first person to be First Lady in two countries, the story of Mama Machel has inspired many across South Africa. When thrust unto global limelight as we saw during her time with Mandela,  she maintained a dignified outlook.

She was not only an exceptional loving wife, she was, and remains, an inspiration to African women. The values, integrity, intelligence and dignity she brought to the job thrust on her by circumstances should never be lost on us.

Despite been a beneficiary of a seeming lavish generosity of fate, Mama Machel is not known to be pompous and profligate. She was meticulous in playing her supporting role to both the people of Mozambique under Samora and South Africa under Mandela. She was not known to be dabble into affairs of the state using her enormous bedroom influence as a spring board. Her target was to be a good wife and a perfect companion. And to me, I think she achieved that with merit and with less hassles than what many women go through to assert their presence in an irritating manner.

It is in all these attributes that our First Ladies here in Nigeria can learn a thing a two about supporting their husbands and at the same projecting a social cause for the nation. Those who have been most successful in the job, as measured by their own enjoyment of the role, serving the public in a substantive way, being politically involved without assuming the political prerogatives of an elected or appointed official and leaving a permanent public legacy in some measure, have carefully balanced being perceived as a “Queen” of the people while also being a “commoner” who understood their problems and lives.

Traditionally, and especially in the United States where we copied the concept, First Ladies have been expected to be outgoing, attractive, the President’s main supporter and “cheerleader,” and whenever possible, seen and not heard. The First Lady is not on the government payroll, yet she influences the President. She has a budget, a staff, and an office in the seat of power. But unlike the Presidency, her job is not defined in the Constitution. As a result, each Presidential wife has had to shape the role herself.

I hope that Graca will also write about her life, in relation to Samora and Mandela, certainly, but much more broadly about her struggles for a better Mozambique, South Africa and a better world more generally. She was a partner to two remarkable men, but she stands also as remarkable in her own self. Indeed, in Mama Machel, there is abundant lesson for all aspiring First Ladies.