Jill Biden is leaving Tuesday for her first visit to Africa as U.S. first lady, with plans to stop in Namibia and Kenya, the White House said.
Biden will focus on women’s empowerment, children’s issues and food insecurity that has ravaged parts of the continent. She will be the first White House official to visit Africa this year, after U.S. President Joe Biden announced a new strategy regarding the continent and pledged high-level visits.
“Dr. Biden’s trip builds on last year’s U.S.- Africa Leaders summit and as another demonstration of President Biden’s commitment that the United States is all in on Africa and all in with Africa,” Judd Devermont, senior director for African Affairs at the National Security Council, told reporters Tuesday morning.
“…The U.S. strategy towards sub-Saharan Africa, which we released last August, starts with the conviction that Africa is critical to critical to advancing our shared global priorities,” Devermont added. “We believe that we are in the early years of a decisive decade which will determine the rules of the road on a host of vital issues from trade and economics, cybersecurity and technology.”
With this visit, Jill Biden also becomes the first U.S. first lady to visit Namibia since the southwest African nation gained independence in 1990.
In addition to focusing on women and children, the first lady will also draw attention to the dire food insecurity that is once again gnawing at East Africa.
“In Kenya, Dr. Biden will very specifically draw attention to the food security crisis impacting the Horn of Africa, which is noted as the worst drought that this region has experienced in decades,” said NSC spokesperson Becky Farmer. “Over 20 million people are increasing experiencing acute food insecurity with many more at risk of increased hunger over the last year.”
President Biden highlighted the situation in December when he announced a large humanitarian aid package at a summit that brought African leaders to Washington.
The Biden administration has been seen as trying to woo Africa to support Ukraine over Russia, recently dispatching Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to Senegal, Zambia and South Africa.
Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign minister has visited multiple nations that have historic or ideological ties to Russia or the former Soviet Union, such as Mali, Sudan and Angola.
China sent its new foreign minister to Africa for his maiden voyage — a sign of that nation’s deep interest in the continent.
Warm receptions are the norm
Presidential-spouse visits often provide a contrast to the strategic, muscular approach of the presidency — partly because, as Biden herself points out, she has no executive authority and no mandate from American voters.
“I wasn’t elected — but I had a part to play,” she said in December, at a gathering of spouses of African leaders. “As spouses, we serve the people of our countries, too. Don’t we? We see their hearts and hopes. We witness the small miracles of compassion and generosity between neighbors. We know what can happen when communities come together—how much can change when we work towards a cause that’s bigger than ourselves.”
U.S. first ladies are generally well-received on the African continent, said Katherine Jellison, a professor of U.S. women’s history and gender history at Ohio University — maybe because they have an advantage over the president.
“There’s just going to be warmer feelings toward a nonpolitician who’s visiting than a politician, because there may be strings attached,” she said.
U.S. first lady Laura Bush was well-received during her multiple visits to the continent, where she promoted the Bush administration’s HIV and malaria initiatives and attended the inauguration of the continent’s first female president, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in 2006.
And for first Black first lady, Michelle Obama, her trips to the continent were fraught with deep significance. She also used her platform to push for girls’ education.
And then there was first lady Melania Trump, whose 2018 visit to Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and Egypt boiled down to one, highly examined fashion choice.
For a safari in Nairobi National Park, the former model donned headgear that, for many Africans, evoked the continent’s painful history.
“She wore a pith helmet and looked like she was out of some movie about colonial-era Africa and so that didn’t go over well,” Jellison said. “And instead, the visual images very much played up the idea of Western colonization of Africa — absolutely the opposite of Michelle Obama, the daughter of Africa returning.”
Jill Biden visited Africa five times as second lady, highlighting the plight of the powerless. In 2011, when visiting the continent’s largest refugee camp at Dadaab in Kenya, she made an earnest plea, one she is likely to repeat on this trip as the region again descends into crisis.
“Mothers are bringing their children from Somalia, walking sometimes 15, 20, 25 days and they lose their children along the way, the children die,” she said. “So what I’m asking is for Americans just to be, maybe reach out and help and because the situation here is dire.”