MEETING THE FIRST LADIES OF AFRICA
Thandiwe Banda (L), Zambia's first lady, tells the BBC's Veronique Edwards about her private life with her husband
By Joseph Warungu
In recent weeks, I have been doing just what my mother said I should never do – eavesdrop.
But perhaps she would not mind so much if she knew I had been privy to conversations of the first ladies at five seats of power in Africa.
SIA KOROMA, SIERRA LEONE
Indeed, the candid interviews, conducted by the BBC Network Africa's Veronique Edwards, give a new perspective on the leaders of the continent and address issues ranging from power and politics to glamour and romance.
Listening to Sierra Leone's Sia Koroma, Namibia's Penehupifo Pohamba, Ghana's Ernestina Mills, Zambia's Thandiwe Banda, and Uganda's Janet Museveni, the most striking thing is that these women care deeply about the condition of society.
As professionals in their own right, these women are actively promoting education and rural development and championing poverty eradication and the fight against HIV/Aids.
Mrs Koroma and Mrs Pohamba are both experienced medical professionals while Mrs Banda and Mrs Mills are teachers.
The office of the first lady is not an elected one. This means they cannot directly intervene in the running of the country, despite their proximity to power.
However, some first ladies have been known to take matters firmly into their own hands to whip opponents into shape.
Our five ladies have subtle ways of dealing with their partners, too.
“Being a woman, we have our innate feminine tactics,” says Mrs Koroma.
JANET MUSEVENI, UGANDA
“If I call him 'Mr president' it means I want something from him. And I do call him 'Mr president' sometimes.”
For Mrs Museveni, however, it is not enough to live with “power” – she has demanded some of it for herself as an elected MP and minister.
But her appointment to the cabinet, as well as public posts for other close family members, have led to accusations that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is running the country like a family business.
“I know that that is rubbish, I'm sorry to say this,” said Mrs Museveni.
“But if there is anyone who takes the trouble to do everything by the law, it is my husband.”
Uganda's first lady quickly jumps to her husband's defence when it is suggested that having come to power in 1986, he has overstayed his welcome with the voters.
“Every time he's supposed to go back and ask for their support… they give it willingly.”
She concludes by confirming that she will retire from active politics after seeking a second, and last, five-year term as an MP at next year's general elections.
'Beat about the bush'
Unlike in the West, where first ladies and their children are political tools to be deployed at will during campaigns, or to help attract sympathy for the man at the helm, African leaders are generally very protective of their private lives.
PENEHUPIFO POHAMBA, NAMIBIA
However, Veronique manages to uncover a private view of men who are actually very ordinary, vulnerable and – like many of us – awkward.
“I first met him while I was studying in Germany,” says Mrs Pohamba, recalling how the future president of Namibia wooed her and eventually proposed.
“He acted as if he'd been sent by someone else, saying: 'If there is someone who would like to fall in love with you, would you agree?'
“And I said: 'It depends on whether I know the person. If I don't, I won't agree… so who is this person you're talking about?'
“Then he continued beating about the bush and four hours later he said: 'The person I'm talking about is myself'.
“I responded: 'Wuh! Let me think about it'.
“We met again much later in Angola and fell in love and he proposed to me – on his knees.”
If the Namibian president was having a hard time securing a future wife, Zambian leader Rupiah Banda, who already has grown up children with his late wife and grandchildren, had palpitations when he heard the news that he had become a father again.
THANDIWE BANDA, ZAMBIA
“At the time, I didn't know I was expecting,” his wife said.
“I went to the hospital to check why my stomach was becoming so uncomfortable.
“After the scan the doctor asked me if I was pregnant and I said: 'No'. Then he informed me that I was two months pregnant with twins.
“When I called my husband with the news, he was in shock. He said: 'No, no…really?…No!' He may have been expecting a child, but two was a pleasant surprise.”
Zambia's first lady says she would like to see the establishment of a formal office of the first lady with a government budget allocation to support her public work.
However, this is a view that has provoked controversy in some countries, with many people questioning the need for a formal role for first ladies describing it as a waste of money. They argue that because the first ladies are unelected, they are not directly accountable to the people.
Ghana's first lady does not have children of her own.
But as a teacher she is passionate about young people and works hard to promote literacy, especially for some of the girls in rural areas whose education is sometimes disrupted by social pressures, including men who prey on them.
ERNESTINA MILLS, GHANA
But when at home, and away from her duties as a first lady, Mrs Mills spends time with her dogs, a habit she inherited from her father. One dog is called Tandy, another is Max. Then there is Candy and Sweetie Pie. With names like these it is hardly surprising that she talks to them all the time.
“They understand,” she says, becoming animated.
“They lie on their back and I scratch their chest and they're happy!”
Although wining and dining with the high and mighty should bring happiness to many people, Africa's “first ladies” have their regrets.
'No more discos'
Despite the fulfilment they get from serving their societies and helping to improve life in Africa, they miss one thing: freedom.
“I used to wear normal clothes that a mother with two kids would wear. You know, easy clothes like jeans and a T-shirt,” Mrs Banda recalls.
“Now there are some clothes that I can't wear because everyone – especially young people – look up to me; I need to set a good example.”
AFRICA ON THE BBC
Focus on Africa http://www.bbc.co.uk/focusonafricamagazine is a monthly magazine produced by the BBC covering the continent's biggest and most pressing issues.
To subscribe, visit this page http://www.bbc.co.uk/focusonafricamagazine/news/story/2009/09/090922_subscribe2009.shtml
All programmes produced by BBC World Service Africa can be listened to here http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/
For Namibia's Mrs Pohamba, before her life was surrounded by bodyguards and state protocol, music used to be the food of her soul and body.
“I can't dance any more… this house is like a prison… you're not really free, not like how I was in the old days.
“I could go to the disco, and then return to my house and start dancing again and doing this and that. That is no more.”
Mrs Koroma will also not mind leaving State House when the time comes. Although her husband is only in the middle of his first term in office, she is clear about an exit plan.
“There's a golden rule in politics: You must know when to come in and when to get out.
“That is my motto and I'm going to stand by it. That exit is very important.”