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In EA, the role of First Lady has been evolving over the years

In East Africa, the role of the First Lady has been evolving over the years.

In East Africa, the role of the First Lady has been evolving over the years.

Inevitably, to become a First Lady is to step into a role that is subject to public scrutiny; whether that role is formal or informal.

Some First Ladies have found themselves in the news for all the wrong reasons — lavish holidays and shopping sprees abroad, corruption and/or doing everything possible to ensure their husbands remain in power.

Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines for example, was infamous for her glitzy display of wealth, collecting more than 1,000 pairs of shoes, and is even quoted as saying: “I was born ostentatious. They will list my name in the dictionary someday. They will use Imeldific to mean ostentatious extravagance.”

Despite facing numerous corruption charges in the Philippines, she is yet to be convicted and continues to wield considerable power even after her husband’s death; her knack in surviving personal and political challenges has led her to be nicknamed “The Steel Butterfly.”

Elena Ceausescu’s legacy too, is a subject of debate. A First Lady in communist Romania, she was chief of the Party and State Cadres Commission, which enabled her to promote and demote individuals in the party apparatus and the government. By the mid-1980s, Elena’s national prominence had grown to the point that her birthday was celebrated as a national holiday, as was her husband Nicolae’s.

There is even a First Lady wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity — Simone Gbagbo, wife of former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo. The ICC indicted her for four counts of crimes against humanity (murder, rape and other sexual violence, persecution, and other inhuman acts) committed in Côte d’Ivoire between 2010 and 2011, in the violence that followed a disputed election that pitted her husband Laurent against Alassane Ouattara, who eventually emerged victorious.

But what really is the role of the First Lady? The world over, there is conflict over her precise role — unelected, yet wielding substantial power, her job is to accomplish two things at once: “Project buoyant enthusiasm and an air of dignity; know how to be girlish and how to look serene in a gown,” write Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg in an insightful piece on Salon.com.

Strong First Ladies also attract resentment, they write, drawing from Bill and Hillary Clinton: “… Nothing helped Hillary’s image so much as the sympathy she garnered when Bill’s bad private behaviour was confirmed. Then she appeared appropriately vulnerable.”

And the demure, suburban, country club woman is still derided as “Ms Perfect, someone easy to dislike.” It’s a delicate balancing act.

In East Africa, it seems, the role of the First Lady has been evolving over the years, from “mama wa taifa” (mother of the nation) — the silent, matronly types by the Big Man’s side, essentially reinforcing his role as the ultimate embodiment of the patriarchal establishment — to a more forward-looking one; a microcosm of shifting dynamics of the modern-day African society. Mama Ngina Kenyatta, the widow of Kenya’s first president, in particular, wore the tag.

In Uganda, critics have often described former First Lady Miria Kalule-Obote, as “low-key with barely a career to talk about.” She, however, surprised many when in 2005, she returned to Uganda after 20 years in exile, to bury her husband, and announced she would vie for the presidency during the 2006 General Election.

TODAY’S FIRST LADY

Today’s East African First Lady is not the unassuming, silent type. She is educated, vocal and often powerful in her own right.

She is championing 21st century causes such as early childhood education, the fight against elephant poaching and even confidence-building for the youth by promoting debating contests and toastmaster clubs.

And as women become a common sight at the African political high table, and they are not just trophies — they are urbane, sophisticated, educated and often have some international experience — there is a need for the First Lady to measure up.

This list of the urbane, sophisticated, educated women includes Tanzania’s minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs Asha-Rose Migiro, a former deputy secretary-general of the United Nations. Also included are Anna Tibaijuka, Tanzania’s minister for Lands and Housing, who is the former executive director of UN-Habitat; Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Defence, Raychelle Omamo, a former chair of the Law Society of Kenya who previously served as ambassador to France; and Uganda’s minister for Gender and Social Services Mary Karoro Okurut, who had an illustrious career as a writer and literary critic prior to joining government, and was the founder of Femrite — Uganda Women Writers Association.

This means that today’s First Lady is faced with two pressures: First, she can no longer claim “female exclusivity” to the president’s ear in influencing public policy; and second, she cannot stray too far from the image of the progressive and sophisticated woman — the matronly, self-deprecating “mama wa taifa” looks outdated next to her sharply dressed power women in Cabinet.

Perhaps no other country has witnessed this solid shift towards the composed and sophisticated type more than Kenya.

Mama Ngina Kenyatta was the quiet, unassuming, typical “mama wa taifa.” Then for 24 years under President Daniel arap Moi, Mama Ngina retained the official status as First Lady as President Moi was estranged from his wife (now the late) Lena.

When Mwai Kibaki came into power in 2002, his wife Lucy strode boldly beside him into the public arena, and before long, had become the talk of the town for her alleged aggressive outbursts. One bizarre episode is when President Kibaki called a rare press conference in 2009 to clarify to the public that he had only one wife, Lucy, apparently irritated by media references to a speculated second wife.

Still, Lucy had her fair share of achievements — she had programmes to fight HIV/ Aids and breast cancer, credited as a founder member and initiator of the Starehe Girls Centre, a leading girls high school in Nairobi.

Then in came Margaret Kenyatta, the current First Lady, who is the complete embodiment of the 21st century woman.

EAST AFRICA’S FIRST LADY

JANET MUSEVENI

JANNJanet Museveni is perhaps the best illustration of this evolution of the role of First Lady in the region. She is East Africa’s longest-serving First Lady.

Age: 65

Education:Bachelor’s degree in Education; Diploma in Early Childhood Education

Number of children: Four

Years as First Lady:28

Style: Short hair (popularised as the ‘Janet’ hairstyle); pearls

Janet Museveni is perhaps the best illustration of this evolution of the role of First Lady in the region. She is East Africa’s longest-serving First Lady. When she came into office 28 years ago, Uganda faced two major challenges — it was just emerging from years of civil war, and many children had lost their parents or had been child soldiers.

The country was also coming to terms with HIV/Aids, which was leaving thousands of children as orphans. It was thus natural that she started off her career as First Lady by founding Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (Uweso), a relief agency late 1986, which she said was shaped by her experience as a refugee. Fighting HIV/Aids was a core mandate of the agency. 

As a result, new HIV infections in Uganda plummeted from 31 per cent in 1992 to 6 per cent in 2002, and the country was lauded for setting the standard in the continent’s fight against HIV/Aids.

By 2005, the threat that HIV/Aids posed to Uganda was diminishing. The First Lady then repositioned herself as the guardian of Ugandan family values, and moral leader for the country’s youth — heading a campaign for prayer and abstention from sex as a new approach to dealing with the lingering threat of Aids. But that hamstrung with the image of a hectoring matron, so she shifted gears.

Her next move is a lesson in reinvention. She announced that she would vie for the Ruhaama parliamentary seat, in western Uganda in the 2006 elections, a radical move considering that Ruhaama was where she was born, not where she is married — African culture expects that a married woman “belongs” to her husband and his people, and she should “eat” where her husband is.

The easier route would have been to have her husband nominate her to parliament. But she ran, and won, and was even re-elected in 2011, becoming a political powerhouse in her own right.

In 2009, Mrs Museveni was appointed State Minister for Karamoja Affairs and in 2011, she was elevated to Minister for Karamoja Affairs, and was now not just First Lady, but an elected member of parliament and a government minister. She capped it with a remarkably frank autobiography, My Life’s Journey, further setting out her stall as an independent First Lady.

Janet Museveni’s rise to power coincides with President Museveni’s expanding of women in high-level positions — his 1986 Cabinet had just one woman, Gertrude Njuba, one of the few founding members of the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Today, women make up 36 per cent of the Cabinet.

JEANNETTE KAGAME

janetJeannette Kagame who has had to deal with the additional challenge of her husband’s international profile. Mrs Kagame’s initiatives thus reflect a sharp, progressive forward-looking and future focused thinking, while sidestepping the international and regional battles her husband seems to relish.

Age: 51

Education: Bachelor’s degree in Business and Management Science

Number of children: Four

Years as First Lady: 14

Style: Shumshanana (traditional Rwandan dress for women)

No other First Lady in East Africa, has had to deal with the additional challenge of her husband’s international profile, as much as Jeannette Kagame.

Paul Kagame is unique in the region in that he is more than the president of a small African country — he is in many ways a global icon. His international fan club is as fanatic as is its Hate-Kagame global industry. He is the only African leader who gets invited to Fortune 500 meetings.

Mrs Kagame’s initiatives thus reflect a sharp, progressive forward-looking and future focused thinking, while sidestepping the international and regional battles her husband seems to relish.

Although her Imbuto Foundation covers health and other socio-economic programmes, some of its biggest initiatives are focused on empowering the youth, and not through just the conventional means: Imbuto Foundation hosts Reading Day campaigns, scholarships for secondary education, Celebrating Young Rwandan Achievers (CYRWA), and Rwanda Speaks!, a public speaking initiative done through toastmasters clubs and debate contests.

DENISE NKURUNZIZA

M7Burundi’s Denise Nkurunziza embodies the conservative type, having being ordained as a reverend in 2011. She perhaps gets the least mention of the East African First Ladies, reflecting the reality that Burundi is still a country coming out of the shadows after years of a bitter civil war. ILLUSTRATION/JOHN NYAGAH

Age: 45

Education: Higher Diploma in Pastoral Studies

Number of children: Five

Years as First Lady: 9

Style: Short hair; umushanana; kitenge

Burundi’s Denise Nkurunziza embodies the conservative type, having being ordained as a reverend in 2011. She perhaps gets the least mention of the East African First Ladies, reflecting the reality that Burundi is still a country coming out of the shadows after years of a bitter civil war.

Her sports-loving husband Pierre Nkurunziza is also deeply religious, and both the president and First Lady preach at crusades and in church.

Her Buntu Foundation works to support refugees, widows and orphans, and in 2012, opened the Professional Training Centre, Buye at Ngozi, in northern Burundi where students are trained in various practical skills.

But like Salma Kikwete, her approach to health care is decidedly modern — in 2010, the Buntu Foundation signed an agreement with Fortis Healthcare, an Indian medical services network, which seized an opportunity to tap into the need for specialist healthcare in Burundi. Under the agreement, Fortis Healthcare trains Burundian specialist doctors and nurses in India.

Doctors from Fortis Healthcare also hold free medical camps for the poor, and citizens who cannot be treated in Burundi can be transferred to India for treatment at a subsidised fee.

MARGARET KENYATTA

MAGGIEKenya’s current First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta is the complete embodiment of the 21st century woman. Wellborn, articulate, composed and  photogenic, she lends much-needed class and glamour to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s image.

Age: Unknown

Education: Bachelor’s degree in Education

Number of children: Three

Years as First Lady: 1

Style: Pearls; short grey hair

Kenya’s current First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta is the complete embodiment of the 21st century woman. Wellborn, articulate, composed and  photogenic, she lends much-needed class and glamour to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s image.

Her first major initiative as First Lady was on wildlife conservation, launching the anti-poaching campaign ‘Hands Off Our Elephants’ mid last year.

In a country where wildlife conservation is largely seen as a “mzungu” thing (Western concept), the First Lady’s endorsement is a testament to her connection with 21st century sensibilities.

Recently, she launched another initiative, “Beyond Zero” focusing on maternal and child health, that saw her raise money by running a half marathon in March.

Marathons are a decidedly urbane and chic way of raising money, a departure from harambees(fund raiser events) or the ordinary conferences or talk-shops.

SALMA KIKWETE

TZSalma Kikwete, Tanzania’s First Lady, who regularly wears kitenges in public, and has the most “motherly” image of her counterparts in the region proves that there is still room for the traditional in East Africa.

Age: 50

Education: Bachelor’s degree in Education; Diploma in Early Childhood Education

Number of children: 5

Years as First Lady: 9

Style: Kitenge with headscarf

There is still room for the traditional in East Africa — Salma Kikwete, Tanzania’s First Lady, who regularly wears kitenges in public, and has the most “motherly” image of her counterparts in the region.

Her WAMA Foundation (Wanawake na Maendeleo) has four major programmes — girl child education, which draws from Mrs Kikwete’s 20 years experience as a teacher, women empowerment, orphans and vulnerable children and health promotion.

Last month, the foundation joined five other NGOs under the Coalition for Prevention of Cervical Cancer in Tanzania, highlighting the growing threat of non-communicable diseases in the region.

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