GABORONE, Botswana — Visiting Africa on a goodwill mission, First Lady Michelle Obama defended her husband Friday against criticism that he isn’t paying enough attention to the continent. She said her week-long trip to South Africa and Botswana is proof of the president’s commitment to Africa.
“This trip is a reflection, a direct reflection, of his support and his interest and his view of the importance of Africa to the world and to the future of the world,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Given that Barack Obama is America’s first black president and his father was from Kenya, many had hoped to see stepped-up U.S. involvement on the vast continent during his presidency. Africans also longed for Obama to visit so they could welcome home a U.S president they consider one of their sons.
He did visit, stopping in Ghana in 2009. But he stayed less than 24 hours and has not been back to Africa.
The first lady said people expect a lot from her overworked husband and that some won’t ever think what he does is enough.
“He would love to be here but there’s a lot of work to do on the domestic front,” she told four American reporters traveling with her. “And as president it’s hard to predict and plan internationally because you’ve got domestic stuff hitting you left and right.”
“Africa’s absolutely important to him,” she added. “I understand why people feel like they want more. It’s a big continent, a lot of challenges. But I think his record and the number of senior officials who’ve spent so much time in Africa … that is a reflection of this administration’s commitment to this continent.”
White House officials previously have pointed to the president’s involvement in Libya, Sudan and Ivory Coast as examples of his commitment to Africa, along with repeat visits by senior administration officials such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mrs. Obama said she is her husband’s “direct representative” and as such she was the one who met Friday with Botswanan President Ian Khama. The two emerged from his office after about 45 minutes and shook hands for the news media. They made no remarks.
The White House said later that they underscored the “breadth and depth” of the relationship between their countries. Botswana is considered one of Africa’s most stable democracies and has held 10 successive democratic elections since becoming independent in 1966.
Khama expressed appreciation for U.S. assistance, including life-saving support for HIV/AIDS patients, the White House said. HIV/AIDS is a major public health challenge in Botswana, a Texas-sized country of two million people in southern Africa. About 300,000 Batswana are infected with the disease.
They also discussed youth leadership, the key theme that Mrs. Obama has been promoting in Africa, and Khama’s interest in conservation. Khama also sent his best wishes to Obama.
Mrs. Obama opened the second leg of her trip in Botswana on Friday by wielding a paint brush to help create a mural at a children’s HIV/AIDS clinic sponsored by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The facility treats more than 4,000 children and their families.
The U.S. has spent more than $450 million since 2005 to help Botswana deal with AIDS. The country’s efforts and partnerships with academic institutions and foundations have helped more than 95 percent of infected Batswana get treatment, officials said.
The first lady also had lunch with a group of women, many of whom have overcome personal challenges, and their mentors. She told them that she’s proof that success isn’t about money or connections because her parents had neither of those. It’s “about how much one believes in their own potential,” she said.
The first lady traveled with her daughters, Malia, 12, and Sasha, 10; her mother, Marian Robinson; and a niece and nephew, Leslie and Avery Robinson, 15 and 19, respectively. She began the trip Monday, spending two days each in Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa before moving on to Botswana.
Photo: Michelle Obama