First Ladies of Africa Take Action

Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee proposed the idea of a First Ladies of Africa Summit at the Women in the World conference last year. It is finally happening! Gail Sheehy on a new political partnership.

Last year, at The Daily Beast Women in the World Summit, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee uttered a rousing battle cry, calling for a First Ladies of Africa Summit, and guess what – it’s now happening. Last night, co-hosts Diane von Furstenberg and The Daily Beast joined with Marjorie Margolies, Valerie Biden Owens, Bobbi Brown, and a group of other distinguished women, to announce a new political partnership.

When the First Ladies of Africa came to New York for this week’s UN Millennium Development Goal Summit, Marjorie Margolies (Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law) had better than a red carpet ready to welcome them. She gathered a crowd of distinguished women, and a smattering of awed men, for a party at the Padre Figlio restaurant near UN headquarters, to hear about a political partnership between the most progressive First Ladies and Women’s Campaign International (WCI) and the RAND Corp. to enhance the lives of women and girls in Africa.

Callista, from the village of Nomba, learned how to frame her message. “You are dealing with local people, and they want money,” she explained.

The statuesque wife of Malawi’s President, Callista Chimombo Mutharika, spoke warmly of meeting Margolies in 2003. Callista was then one of about 170 women aspiring to become members of parliament. Once Margolies and WCI executive director Kerry Kennedy set up a training program in how to campaign, the number of women parliamentarians leapt from 19 to 43.

Callista, from the village of Nomba, learned how to frame her message. “You are dealing with local people, and they want money” she explained in an interview. “It is very difficult for women to tell them we have no money, but I say ‘I can still help you,’ and then I talk, and talk, and talk about bringing development.’” She is proud of having brought three schools and four small houses for orphans to her area. Callista, who has since become the leading woman politician in her country, was recently elected as a member of the Pan-African Parliament.

Even more fortuitous was her very recent marriage. When Callista was uncertain about a budding romance with her country’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika, a man 25 years her senior, she had a heart-to-heart with her friend Margolies. “I’m not sure about this,” she told the former TV journalist and Democratic member of Congress from Pennsylvania, who was unequivocal in her advice: “Take it!”

Callista gave the romance three more years to be sure and was married to the President only last May. She brought two children to the presidential palace and finds her husband to be a very good stepfather. With a broad smile, she says that even her sixteen-year-old son likes him.

On the political front, her husband has always supported her work in combating HIV-Aids. “We have a pandemic, but we are changing motherhood by fighting back against HIV Aids,” she told party guests. “Other African countries come to Malawi to find out how we do it.”

Margolies told the crowd that the legacy project came together when she attended The Daily Beast’s Women in the World Summit in New York last March and listened to the compelling stories of African women and girls. It was Callista who introduced the idea of gathering African First Ladies in a joint effort to prepare legacy projects while they and their husbands are still in office. The First Ladies Legacy Initiative would combat the HIV-AIDS pandemic through education and medical help. “Now Malawi is the star performer against HIV-AIDS,” she said. “People come from other African countries to see how we do it.”

In an interview, Callista spoke frankly about some of the problems in global development. “What you find in Africa is that once people are elected, they never live up to their message. They get a reputation for shopping and living the high life.”

The wife of Kenya’s Prime Minister, Ida Betty Odinga, and Namibia’s First Lady, Penehupifo Pohamba, were also present at the party to celebrate the new political partnership. Two other First Ladies involved are Sia Nyama Koroma from Sierra Leone and Mathato Mosisili from Lesotho.

Other notable guests were Ambassador Meryl Frank, deputy U.S. representative to the Commission on the Status of Women, and psychoanalyst Alyce Faye Eichelberger Cleese, the ex-wife of John Cleese. Also attending was Reza Bundy, chief executive of L.A.-based MOTA Motors, who is funding the legacy project to the tune of $100,000.

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Gail Sheehy is author of 15 best-selling books, including the revolutionary Passages. Her new book, Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos Into Confidence, will be published May 4th by HarperCollins.