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Role Players? The First Wives Club

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Role Players? The First Wives Club

I’m not going to waste time and energy reflecting on what happened at the US-Africa Summit. My interest lies in the role African First Ladies brought to Washington. Why did Chantal Biya’s hair make bigger headlines, than their actual role? In any case, did our leaders need to take their wives along?

It’s now over two months since President Obama of America summoned, sorry I mean invited, African Heads of State to America for the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. Why they could not have had a conference call on Skype and saved some money, I do not know. But hey, who am I to suggest such a thing?

I’m not really interested in writing about the summit as when it comes to relationships with Africa, I know nothing good comes out of these summits, conferences and meetings. Well, that is, nothing good for the ordinary African. Maybe our leaders and their American/European counterparts benefit.

But whatever agreements they make seem not to be reflected on the ground. Because the summits, meetings, conferences have been numerous, yet the results on the ground remain the same – poverty, lack of basic amenities, hardship etc. Did I say remain the same? I’m sorry, I meant to say the situation on the ground seems to worsen.

The more summits, conferences and meetings our leaders have, the harder life seems to get for the ordinary citizen. So I’m not going to waste time and energy reflecting on what happened at the actual summit. My interest with the US-Africa Summit lies with the role of First Ladies.

Two things happened at the US-Africa Summit. One was the talk of Chantal Biya’s hair. That topic took over major newspapers in the USA. Indeed Chantal Biya’s hair gave the world something to laugh hard about. And the media were happy to mock her. As a promoter of natural hair, I must admit, I did find the whole saga hilarious.

But on a more serious note, the other issue that came out of the US-Africa Summit was the abysmal way in which Ghana’s First Lady, Lordina Mahama gave her speech. And this got me re-thinking about something I had thought about in the past – the role of the First Lady. And I mean not just the African First Lady but all wives of all presidents and prime ministers, across the world.

What role should any First Lady play? Should it be automatic for her to also speak in public? What if the First Lady is shy, or simply anti-social? What if she’s not a great English speaker and lacks eloquence? What if the First Lady has no interest in politics and would rather stay in the background? What if the First Lady is already a success in her own right? Perhaps she’s an entrepreneur, or has been running her own company for years? Maybe she’s a top player in a successful business.

By virtue of her husband now being president, are we saying the First Lady should give up her life and pursue other charitable projects? Should it be that by virtue of marriage, First Ladies have to be champions of a campaign? If so, do we then say we need to look at how we vote? Because as far as I know, as things currently stand, people vote for a political party based on their campaign promises. But if the role of the First Lady is so important, then we need to consider this when voting. Who do we want to be our First Lady?

Imagine this. In your 20s, you marry someone. Twenty or thirty years later, this person now becomes president. You have no interest in being a public figure. Should you be forced to be one by virtue of a marriage you made twenty to thirty years previously? Why should First Ladies be forced into this role.

I really felt sorry for Ghana’s First Lady, Lordina Mahama at the US-Africa Summit. The video of her performance went viral and people mocked her. The thing is, were it not for her husband, nobody would have asked Lordina Mahama to give that public speech. Do we see the wife of a company CEO giving speeches at a business conference or company dinner?  When it comes to Africa, not to be disrespectful, how many of our First Ladies are educated to a high level? How many of them have vim? How many of them have that presence? I don’t know any First Ladies personally but from what I see, I would say the Michelle Obamas and Hillary Clintons of this world are far and few between. They say behind every successful man is a woman. And I don’t doubt the role and influence First Ladies play and have on their husbands. But does this mean they are qualified or suited to be shoved in front of the public?

I really felt sorry for Ghana’s First Lady, Lordina Mahama at the US-Africa Summit. The video of her performance went viral and people mocked her. The thing is, were it not for her husband, nobody would have asked Lordina Mahama to give that public speech

If our menfolk have been summoned to meet with the almighty American president, is it compulsory to take their wives? Many men go on business trips, is it the norm for them to take their partners? And is it compulsory to organise an event for the First Ladies? As our menfolk were busy being told what to do by Obama, our First Ladies also found themselves attending a conference that had been organised for them. Is it compulsory to have a side conference for the First Ladies? I actually feel sorry for these First Ladies because it’s like being forced to do a job you not only have no interest in, but did not apply for! I would hate one day to be told I had to do a certain job because of my husband’s position.

First Ladies actually remind me of beauty queens in the sense that whilst they’re reigning, we hear so much about their foundations and charitable works. But the moment their reign or time in power is over, we hear very little. So you have to wonder, are they doing it because of a genuine desire or because of expectations? And is it fair to place such high expectations on them? After all, it’s not them we voted for, but for a political party. 

Whether the First Lady is forced to become a campaigner of whatever issue she takes up or not makes no difference to the politics of her husband’s party and how the country is run. If a First Lady has a genuine interest in something and can use her position to make a difference then by all means she should. What I don’t understand, and where I sympathise with her is the situation in which a First Lady has no interest, passion or skill, yet is expected to perform.

The art of speaking in public is difficult. Not everyone can master that skill. And I think it’s extremely unfair to place certain people in these kind of situations, based on who they’re married to. The role of any First Lady should be seriously looked at. For example what does the Office of the First Lady actually do? Should this office be like the seat of government so each new First Lady takes over the physical office? Or can each First Lady decide to have her Office of the First Lady wherever she wants it? For example the official seat of government in Ghana is the Flagstaff House. Whoever wins the next elections will occupy the Flagstaff House. Should there be a permanent Office of the First Lady?

Should First Ladies have a continuous role to play? Such as, project A is what the Office of the First Lady does. Nothing else. So no matter who is the First Lady, she continues project A until it reaches its natural exhaustion. Or should each First Lady come in with her own charities and campaigns? Do we even need an Office of the First Lady? Should the First Lady be ceremonial, like Jackie O? A beautiful accessory that the man is seen with? Or should the First Lady be left to her own devices? After all, whether she attends conferences, summits and meetings with her husband or not should have no reflection on how the country is run.

Like I said, I actually pity First Ladies because they’ve been shoved in a position that they may not wish to be in. As a wife and woman and behind closed doors, the First Lady will have an influence on her husband. But does that mean he needs to be seen to be involving her publicly? Personally I see the role of a First Lady as a superficial one. In Ghana for example, on the campaign trail, the potential First Lady is used to bring in the female votes. She’s the one who’ll go to the markets and maternity wards to engage with her ‘’sisters’’.

During the time her husband’s party is in power, we’ll hear a lot about her charitable work. When her husband loses an election and is no longer President, we also cease to hear of her charities and foundations. So then, do we really need a First Lady who is a public figure, or should the First Lady be left to her own devices? Based on the performance of some First Ladies, I think unless they want it and can perform properly, it’s unfair to shove them into these roles.

But hey, these are just the reflections of an ordinary African woman.

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Written by Akua Djanie

Akua Djanie, better known to her fans in Ghana as Blakofe, a TV, radio and events Presenter. At IC Publications, Akua has been sharing her 'Reflections of an Ordinary Woman' for the past three years in New African magazine.

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