Malia, who enters her teenage years when she turns 13 next month, and Sasha, her 10-year-old sibling, have been two steps behind first lady Michelle Obama on practically all her stops in southern Africa this week. It has given both the American and African media a long look at the sisters whose private lives their parents have tried to keep private.
When they moved into the White House, the Obamas asked the news media to keep a respectful distance from the girls and refrain from photographing them at school, at weekend soccer games or at times when they weren’t with their parents. The White House even objected to coverage of their daughters at official events in the White House.
But there was no such restriction on Mrs. Obama’s good-will visit to Africa, which began Monday night when her plane, dubbed “Brightstar,” landed on a chilly night at Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa.
The girls joined their mother, as well as their grandmother and two cousins who are traveling with the first lady, on well-documented public outings to Nelson Mandela’s foundation and several museums.
They met living heroes of the movement against South Africa’s system of racial separation, including Mandela himself, who spent 27 years in prison for conspiring to abolish apartheid, and former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another elder of the movement. They met Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, and Antoinette Sithole, whose 13-year-old brother, Hector Pieterson, became a symbol of the fight against apartheid when he was gunned down by police in the black township of Soweto in June 1976 as students protested peacefully against the white government.
Malia and Sasha painted and played dancing games with children at several other stops. At a day-care center in the Johannesburg shantytown of Zandspruit, they and their mother took turns reading Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat to a group of 3- and 6-year-olds. Many people were surprised to hear the girls’ voices; they almost never talk aloud in public. Both read their parts with gusto.
Mrs. Obama acknowledged that her daughters are on the world stage this week.
“It’s a balance, but our priority will always be protecting their privacy,” she told ABC News in an interview Thursday. “It won’t be often that you see them reading The Cat in the Hat, but I think this was an important exception for them.”
Aides say that there’s been no change in policy toward media treatment of the girls and that Mrs. Obama remains determined to help them have as normal a childhood as possible.
Mrs. Obama often talks to young people about the importance of traveling and experiencing other parts of the world. Her daughters apparently are no exception.
Malia and Sasha have listened intently as researchers explained Mandela’s personal writings and as guides led them around museums that explored painful chapters in South Africa’s past as a country that separated its blacks and whites. And as if to say, “Stick with me,” they stayed close to two cousins who traveled with the family, Leslie and Avery Robinson, 15 and 19, respectively. The Robinsons live in Oregon with their father, Craig, who is Michelle’s brother. Unlike their cousins, the Robinson siblings aren’t growing up in a fishbowl.
Kristina Schake, Mrs. Obama’s communications director, said the first lady wanted her girls on the trip with her because she didn’t want them to miss out on a remarkable experience because of who they are. She also knew her daughters could handle a full week in the media glare because they are poised, polite and smart.
“This was a unique week,” Schake said.
Photo: Michelle Obama