Opinionista Khadija Patel 22 June 2011

Meeting Michelle

After surfacing from the first day at the Young African Women Leaders Forum, I learnt that many of my media colleagues believed we’d spent the day dining, wining and basking in the shadow of Michelle Obama. The truth is, we spent most of the day waiting to pose for a picture with her.

As we waited on weary legs finally to be admitted to within sight and sound of Michelle Obama, who the US Secret Service refer to as “FLOTUS” (First Lady Of The United States – her hubby is called POTUS as in “President”) some kicked off their stilettos, cursing the stupidity that sees us forcing our feet into those contraptions of agony, others watched the secret service personnel. As we stood, preened and postured, waiting in line for the photo opportunity, the clock ticked away mercilessly. Michelle, we were told, was minutes away. Those minutes ticked by to what felt like at least an hour.

“Michelle’s not in Africa for a day and already she’s taken to African time,” someone joked. Someone else, South African, of course,  threatened to strike if Obama did not immediately appear. Americans, it would seem are uncowed by threats of a looming strike. She still did not appear and time, too, dragged its feet. We raised our demands. In recompense for having us stand in line that long, the US, we determined, would have to double aid to Africa.

When she did finally appear we burst out into spontaneous applause. She was graceful, eloquent, beautiful, but Michelle Obama strikes you most as a woman. She told us that she’d like her daughters to be like us, the 70-odd women participating in the Young African Women Leaders Forum, but listening to her speak, and looking around at her captivated audience, you realised that Michelle Obama could easily be your aunt, your neighbour, your primary school English teacher. She epitomises the quiet strength that we see every day in women everywhere from Washington, DC, to a fishing village in Madagascar.

Away from Michelle Obama, the real story of the first day at the Young African Women Leaders Forum is the remarkable group of participants in the forum. “I want my daughters to be like you,” she flattered the forum participants into forgetting exactly how long we had been waiting for her, but looking around at the captive audience, you realised this really was an extraordinary group of women.

Yes, they are 5fm DJs, eNews journalists, successful business people and talented artists, but they are also a 16-year-old matriculant in awe of the opportunity she’d been afforded. Vanessa Mhlom is effusive in her enthusiasm, stopping every now and then to point out the famous among us, unshackling the rest of us from a sense of complacency. Of course, we’re excited to be hobnobbing with the American first lady, but the real satisfaction has come from getting to know the women who’ve travelled from across Africa to deliberate on the state of women’s leadership on the continent.

There will, no doubt, be much probing about who exactly the 75 women at the Young African Women Leaders Forum are, what they’d done to merit an invitation to be there and whether or not they really were young, African leaders. And yet, as forum participants ourselves, we did not escape questioning what exactly women’s leadership in Africa entails.

The first session was devoted to unravelling what it means to be a leader. Who is a leader? Why are the people we believe to be leaders not role models to the kids in Mamelodi who want nothing more than to grow up to be like Mzekezeke? The real humdingers though were what we as Africans wanted Obama to know about women in Africa. The message we sent was clear. We are passionate about this place we call home, we are devoted to development through learning and we want desperately to make sure that women’s leadership positions are not charitable acts of window-dressing in the interests of meeting equity requirements in the workplace.

A long time ago another leader of women, the courageous writer Susan Sontag wrote, “Travel has become a strategy for accumulating photographs and in this age of sharing pictures of the mundane at the click of a button, life has become a strategy for accumulating photographs.” Waiting in line, giggling at the jokes, but growing weary, I wondered whether devoting so much time and effort to a posed photograph made any sense. Surely this was time better spent doing something, anything more than posing for a picture? After the press had their pictures of a smiling Michelle Obama with a group of beaming women, 5fm’s Anele asked her, “How do you make Barack feel as though he is in charge?” We laughed at the cheekiness of Anele’s question, but  Mrs Obama did not flinch, “A sign of a good man is that he is not afraid of a strong woman.”

Good on you, Barack. DM


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