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Up close and personal with the first ladies of Africa

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Dave Lee | 16:20 UK time, Tuesday, 25 May 2010

BBC Network Africa's Veronique Edwards recently embarked on a massive journey. Flying around Africa, she exclusively interviewed no less than five first ladies - the wives of men in power on the continent. You can hear what the ladies had to say here. For the Over To You blog, Veronique reflects on meeting and interviewing some of Africa's most influential women:

Sia Nyama Koroma, Sierra Leone
Profession: Nurse and a chemical engineer

"Once a nurse, always a nurse," is a mantra for Mrs Sia Nyama Koroma, first lady of Sierra Leone, as she says in her soft and gentle voice.

These were soothing words to me as l arrived in Freetown feeling exhausted and hungry after traveling all night and all day from London. I knew my search for the elusive African First ladies had begun.

Sierra Leone is struggling to get back on its feet after years of a bloody conflict. I felt l had just arrived in the middle of a big bonanza. Most of the people l met were happy and optimistic. Roads are being constructed, big houses, small houses and large mansions are springing up all over the country - and I am constantly reminded that peace has come to stay. Who better reinforces that but Mrs Koroma? A strong woman who comes from a very assertive ethnic group of the country - lovely, soft spoken, caring and a very approachable stateswoman.

With all the diamonds in Sierra Leone, none were on the fingers of the first lady. No bling to be found - you would be hard pressed to see it anywhere on her person.

She did something unexpected. She took me out for lunch in a modest restaurant in town. A girls' lunch, just the two of us. I had to pinch myself to remind me where l was and with whom l was dining.

Ernestina Naadu Mills, Ghana
Profession: Teacher

This leg of the trip was a feat of organisation and planning. Nothing was left to chance.

The flight time tables were checked and doubled checked. One false move and it would take weeks before l would get to Ghana from Sierra Leone. Will my plane show up or would l suffer the fate of sleeping on the floor of the airport?

I made it to Accra and caught up with Mrs Ernestina Mills, first lady of Ghana, a day earlier than planned.

She has a warm personality and charming manners, though she came across as very reclusive. I found a woman who was still trying to understand and cope with her role. She talks of having to "straighten her face" in the glare of scrutiny and how to handle the paparazzi who can turn up anywhere, any time.

I got a real sense of her having a public face and a "behind the scenes" face as she stands by the side of the most powerful man in Ghana.

As a teacher she is passionate about the youth, especially the girls, and works hard to promote their projects.

Her favourite pastime is to play with her dogs, a habit she inherited from her father. She will be in good company with dog lovers - like the Queen with her corgis!

Penehupifo Pohamba, Namibia
Profession: Nurse and midwife

This was a challenge for me! Mrs Penehupifo Pohamba! How do I say her name without tripping or biting my tongue?

Those thoughts vanished away as soon as we met. She was motherly and a good listener. One thing was made clear! She does not like the limelight at all, and prefers for things to be done behind the scenes.

Her favourite colour is blue, so no guessing what colours of garment she was wearing!

She hates high heel shoes. She likes practical clothes because she is a hands-on, down to earth person; her passion is gardening, something she misses so much.

With her girly giggles she still looks demure but forceful underneath, and puts forward her ideas with passion. She decries the fact that she cannot visit her farm and goats without the pomp and official protocol that accompanies her everywhere she goes. She just wants to be left alone to catch her breath without being chaperoned around.

Now as a first lady she has had to abandon any previous "footloose and fancy-free" ways she may well have had in the past. No more dancing until the wee hours of the morning. She tells me she is unable to cook even her favourite dishes because she is not allowed in the kitchen.

"So what can you do?" I asked her.

"Well," she replied. "make my own decrees to be allowed to do certain things my way."

Thandiwe Banda, Zambia
Profession: Teacher

She is the youngest first Lady Zambia has ever had, even younger than some of her husband's children from his previous marriage.

She is a mother of twins - twins that came as a big shock to her husband, Zambia's leader Rupiah Banda.

The twins are now five years old, very playful and are a handful as their parents will testify.

The first lady is very animated when she narrates stories about her children; the lovely times they spent in their manicured green gardens at the state house. With pride she pointed out her favourite place under a large tree where barbecues are prepared outdoors.

What struck me most about her was her eagerness to do the right things. She is new to the job but tries to live in a way that conforms to the unwritten codes of her position..The easy clothes like jeans and simple T-shirts that she wore daily on the farm where she roamed freely have made way for more formal outfits that befit a first lady.

She is pre-occupied with her young children, her husband and the various charities that she can help promote around the country.

Janet Museveni, Uganda
Profession: MP and Cabinet Minister

Unlike the other first ladies l met, Mrs Janet Museveni, first Lady of Uganda was different in every sense.

This is the interview that tested my resolve and pushed my patience to the limit.

A firm arrangement was not made before l left London - this meant travelling to other countries in the sub-region but being always prepared to travel at short notice to Uganda to meet with her.

I knew it would be difficult but no one prepared me for the long lonely nights l would spend in a Nairobi hotel waiting for a call from Uganda. I was determined to interview this important and influential woman even if it would be the last interview l ever did.

The call came and l flew to Kampala.

While in the waiting room, my thoughts went for a small walk. At the state house I was managed physically and verbally by the staff who seemed to be everywhere. The security chaps checked my recording equipment and returned it to me.

While l was waiting l took the opportunity to admire the glittering and ornate state house, the beautiful green and lush gardens perched on a hill overlooking the airport and the rest of the town of Entebbe patrolled by armed guards. I had to behave myself.

Finally the door of the waiting room opened and l was taken to meet Mrs Museveni. I walked into the room where she was seated behind a large table with a picture of her husband looking down on our activities. She rose up and greeted me...then apologised for the delay and wished me well.

She is relaxed, poised and very measured in her responses to my questions. She tells me she cares deeply for the poor and less privileged of her country.

She recalls her childhood in a loving community where she grew up and how all that has changed, like many things today.

The first lady of Uganda has also changed. No longer the unworldly girl she was, now she exudes the powerful presence of a genuine first lady.

Over To You is your chance to have your say about the BBC World Service and its programmes. It airs at 00:40, 03:40 and 12:40 every Sunday (GMT).


  • Comment number 1.

    Karma Kitchen. Cute idea but the entire focus is currency, money and "what I get for free". Buying Karma. Working as a waitress to pay for your meal is simply paying for your meal. After living in the supposedly anti materialist city of Portland ,OR. for a few years I found all they ever talked about was money. Mostly how they got over on some small restaurant or business. No sense in the double think pc mindset. Be free and go to a local shelter and simply volunteer. Forget the money.


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