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Travels with the First Lady: A Remarkable Journey in Africa

Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff to the First Lady, shares stories about the amazing organizations, historical and sacred sites, and inspirational leaders the First Lady visited during her travels in Africa.

Watch the video about the First Lady's Trip to Africa here.

As we set out for Africa we knew we were in for a remarkable journey. We knew we would visit historical and sacred sites, and meet with inspirational leaders. And while these events were truly extraordinary, the moments that defined the trip were those we shared with young people who are shaping their countries in Africa, and organizations that are working to strengthen communities. I want to highlight some of the amazing organizations we visited, and share some of the stories behind the events you saw unfold.

On June 21, the First Lady visited the Emthonjeni Community Center located in one of the area’s oldest and least developed settlements in north-west Johannesburg. As we drove to the Center, we could see the impoverished neighborhoods, where most homes lack running water and electricity.  Then we pulled up to the brightly colored, compact and cheerful Center, which provides employment training, afterschool care and tutoring, recreational activities, and medical assistance, and aims to empower community leaders. Students from the African Leadership Academy, a high school for young leaders from all 54 African nations, regularly volunteer at the Center and joined Mrs. Obama for her visit. These students, along with the dedicated staff at the Emthonjeni Community Center are helping transform their community and create positive change for the next generation. You can see from the video the joy of the preschoolers who danced and sang with the First Lady and her family. The innovative programs and the passion we saw in these young leaders inspired us all.

On June 22, after speaking at the Young African Women Leaders Forum, Mrs. Obama joined with Forum participants and Peace Corps members to volunteer at Nanga Vhuthilo (Choose Life), a home and community-based support program in Soweto for children and families in need. Nanga Vhuthilo provides food and essential services to more than 100 families and approximately 230 children. Many of the children are HIV positive or have lost parents to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Center was founded by Sibongile Mazibuko who was moved to take action when her own son was diagnosed with HIV. Realizing the larger challenges faced by those with HIV/AIDS, including a lack of support and information, she decided to create this program to support others in her community. As Mrs. Obama put her gardening skills to work, harvesting and planting vegetables, it was the conversations with Ms. Mazibuko and those who have joined her cause that really left the most impact. While at times the HIV/AIDS epidemic seems overwhelming this community is taking action to support those in need and provide critical services to combat this crisis.

On June 23, after touring the District Six Museum in Cape Town and meeting with Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid icon, the First Lady teamed up with Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Cape Town Stadium to highlight programs that are using sports to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. It was eye opening to see the amazing work these organizations are doing to spread the word about HIV/AIDS prevention.

These programs included:

  • Mothers2Mothers an organization that works to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV by promoting access to healthcare, and providing education and support for pregnant women and new mothers living with HIV.
  • Philisa Abafazi Betu (Heal Our Women), an organization that provides counseling and support to young girls who face gender-based and sexual violence, raises awareness about the link between community and domestic violence and HIV/AIDS, and serves as a safe haven for orphans and vulnerable children.
  • Grassroots Soccer an organization that promotes HIV prevention, healthy living, life skills and leadership among at-risk youth through an interactive curriculum.
  • LoveLife South Africa’s largest HIV prevention initiative for young people, that uses sports as a means to encourage them to be body wise and focus on their health and wellness.

The First Lady and Archbishop Tutu also participated with kids from across Cape Town in a soccer clinic that got everyone moving. As a part of the fabric of the culture, soccer is a sport that brings kids together and provides an opportunity to educate them about their health. We were so encouraged to see the interesting ways these groups were connecting with the youth.      

On June 24, Mrs. Obama joined young leaders to paint a mural at the future site of the Baylor Youth Center in Gaborone, Botswana. Since 2003, the Botswana-Baylor Children's Clinical Center of Excellence has provided high quality care and treatment for more than 4,000 HIV-infected children and families from around Botswana, both at the center and through its decentralized clinical mentoring program. This program is now building a youth center across the street from the medical facility to house youth support and mentoring programs. At the youth center a group of young people, some of whom are HIV-positive, will provide mentoring, education and support to their peers. It was amazing to see the start of such a notable program and to meet some of the teen leaders that are working to lift up those in need.

I hope you will take the time to learn more about these organizations, Africa’s many countries, languages, and histories, and continue to follow the First Lady’s efforts to engage and encourage young people at home and abroad.

Tina Tchen is Assistant to the President, Chief of Staff to the First Lady, and Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls.