First ladies of Africa take page out of US book

Kim Ghattas talks to Sierra Leone's Sahr Abraham Grass Sesay and Anita McBride

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If you need tips on coordinating the east and west wings of an African presidential household, scheduling a visit to a maternity ward or developing leadership without authority, there's a class for you.

For a week, 12 men and women - all chiefs of staff or advisors to first ladies or wives of prime ministers from Tanzania, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Lesotho, Angola, Namibia, Mozambique and Kenya - sat for hours on end in a conference room in a glass building in Virginia, taking notes and hanging to the every word of their "teachers".

Anita McBride, who was chief of staff for former US First Lady Laura Bush, lectured the classes along with Jocelyn Frye, who works with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, and Melanne Verveer, who served Hillary Clinton when she was first lady.

It all started last year with a summit in Los Angeles for African first ladies, co-organised by the independent think tank the Rand Corporation.

The organizers felt that while first ladies can be instrumental in bringing much needed change on social issues like infant mortality or education, they are often not able to realize their full potential because of a variety of challenges.

In Africa in particular, the wives of leaders could make a real difference.

"[African first ladies] are mothers of their country, they refer to them as Mama so and so," said Gery Ryan, a senior social scientist at Rand and one of the organizers of the program.

"They're probably the only woman in the country who can pick up the phone and talk to anyone, the only other person apart from the president or prime minister who can get on TV and people will listen," Mr Ryan said.

He added: "So you have access at the top and you have respect and trust at the breadth of your society. So it's an extremely influential position yet they have no power or authority."

The class was self-selecting, as the invitation to the summit was sent to all countries last year.

A dozen wives of African leaders attended, and they then expressed interest in taking it further.

Start Quote

There are basic tools that, frankly, even in our country with our first ladies, that is much more resourced, that we had to develop over time”

End Quote Anita McBride Ex-chief of staff for Laura Bush

The result was a week-long seminar designed to help the chiefs of staff and advisors of first ladies manage their offices, develop strategies, learn how to seek funding and work with NGOs.

Ms McBride gave many of the lectures. A lot of the talks were very hands on, while some of them seemed rather basic.

Starting from scratch

One morning, she handed out templates of the documents she used during her time at the White House to schedule appointments, plan trips or develop briefs for project ideas.

"There are basic tools that, frankly, even in our country with our first ladies, that is much more resourced, that we had to develop over time," Ms McBride said.

"The more structured you are, the more you share information about what you're doing with the media or the president's team, the more effective you can be," she said.

Sahr Abraham Grass-Sessay from Sierra Leone said the handouts were very useful because in his country, they were building the first lady's office from scratch.

Sonia Gama Adriano from Angola said the course was very useful because while everybody knew how to schedule a media appearance or lead a staff meeting, they were still picking up very useful tips and ideas that would help improve their performance.

Ms Adriano also said the week-long course provided a network building opportunity between African counterparts who could stay in touch once back in their home countries.

Former US First Lady Laura Bush standing with three first ladies from African countries and a RAND organizer Laura Bush met with the first ladies of Namibia, Sierra Leone and Lesotho prior to the meeting

"When we first started talking about running a capacity-building fellowship for the first ladies, everybody was really worried that we would offend the first ladies by suggesting they needed capacity building or leadership training, but they jumped at it, and they really embraced it," said Cora Neumann, another Rand organizer.

Differences in resources

But there were also limits to how much the knowledge of American chiefs of staff was useful to their African counterparts.

"The difference is that while the first lady in the US [is] able to do almost anything she wants because she has the resources, in our country, she may have a program, but it is difficult to achieve everything because of a lack of resources," said Kennedy Limwanya from Zambia.

The fellows were also told how important it was to coordinate with the president's team to make sure schedules were in sync.

One advisor, who did not want to be named because she didn't want to cause upset back home, said she had to cancel media appearances on occasion or events because she got a last minute notice from the president's office about a long planned trip, which the first lady was expected to join.

Ms McBride emphasized again the need to maintain contact with the president's office and request planning meetings on a regular basis.

Start Quote

For this first fellowship program we only directly engaged this group of first ladies with which we've been having a dialogue for the past 18 months”

End Quote Cora Neuman RAND organizer

The fellow said the response they got when they requested information from the president's office was "why should we share anything with you, you only work for the wife?"

So while the wives of Africa's leaders are seen as mothers of their country, the challenge in getting their position recognized remains in many cases.

But a telling sign of the problems Africa faces was the absence of some countries - Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Sudan and a few others were not in attendance.

On a continent where corruption and authoritarian rule are a problem, empowering the wives of African leaders with a questionable record would be highly problematic.

The fellowship was a self selecting process, and Rand is planning another class next year in Africa.

So will Grace Mugabe, the wife Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe be welcome, if she decides to attend?

"For this first fellowship program we only directly engaged this group of first ladies with which we've been having a dialogue for the past 18 months," Ms Neumann said.

"We hope the next fellowship is even bigger and better. Exactly how that one will look, where it will take place and who will participate will depend on discussions with our partners over the coming months," she said.

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