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   Photographs courtesy Darren Smith
From helping to harvest vegetables in a community garden in Soweto and kicking soccer balls with Desmond Tutu to meeting with 75 Young African Women Leaders, American First Lady Michelle Obama’s goodwill mission to South Africa and Botswana last week focused on youth leadership, education, health and wellness, and closer relations with Africa.

The 75 young women selected by US embassies across Africa included farmers and HIV/Aids workers, DJs and reporters, artists, businesswomen and even a 16-year-old matriculant.

“I want my daughters to be like you: strong, beautiful and hard-working,” Mrs Obama told them.

Khadija Patel, one-time magazine editor turned Daily Maverick opinionista and Thought Leader blogger, was one of the 75 Young African Leaders selected to meet her. In her Daily Maverick column, Khadija Patel raised the question asked by many who wished that they too could have been among the chosen few to meet Mrs Obama.

“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.”

But it wasn’t all serious. SA radio personality Anele Mdoda brought light relief after hours of waiting when she asked Mrs Obama how she “gets Barack to believe he’s in charge”.

Verashni Pillay, columnist and deputy editor of M&G Online, summed it up:

“You had to forgive the cheeky question. The person asking it, popular radio personality Anele Mdoda, had been waiting in ridiculously high heels in one spot for over an hour for the world’s favourite first lady to arrive for a photo opportunity, along with 74 other young African women chosen by their US embassies.

“Michelle Obama, glowing with enthusiasm, immediately burst into laughter.

“A good man is happy with a strong woman,” she said, before launching into a girly chat about the type of men we should let into our lives.

“That’s why I fell in love with Barack. I met him way before he was president and he was just so comfortable with himself and he accepted me with all my … stuff.”

These were the kinds of quotes that endeared the US First Lady to the South African public.

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,” wrote Khadija Patel.

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