BBC News – 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

Editor, BBC Network Africa


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.


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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.

Family matters

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.


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“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.


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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.”

Twin palpitations

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.


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“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.

Sweetie Pie

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.


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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.”


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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.”

What do you think about Africa’s first ladies? Are they a force for good? Or a waste of money? Send us your comments using the postform at the end of the page.

Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

I think our first ladies must be given some active role in ensuring that African democracies evolve. the most important role, therefore, would be to remind their husbands that they need to let others, especially younger generations, take command.
George Achuo, Ottawa, Canada

They say…”behind every successful man, there is a wise woman”. So, here we are talking about African Presidents. How successful are we under their leadership? Apart from being corrupt, they have failed to re-energize the productive capacity of the African people and provide them with the most basic necessities for their survival and livelihoods. Instead they provide jobs for their immediate families. They buy homes oversees, steal and invest oversees, and worst of all, save stolen money in foreign banks. As they have failed to invest in health and education for their people, they send their kids to schools oversees, while the ordinary citizen suffers and dies due to hunger and poverty. They attempt to change constitutions so that they stay in power and continue to exploit the natural resources of the land. Next to him is his wife, who is supposed to be more compassionate and motherly, Right? No! they are even more wicked as they condone, encourage and support their greedy husbands. A good woman would never stand behind a tyrant who only seeks the good will of his immediate family, when he is in a power of responsibility for all the people of the land. I have no respect for them and would not even shake their hands. Go ahead, enrich yourselves and steal the people’s wealth. The time will come when you will all pay for your evil ways… the meantime, Yes, you are wise for standing next to a thief and benefitting in the process. Enjoy while it lasts…..
David Saccoh Wright, Sierra Leonean in NY

This story is A crashing bore and a waste of time. Fortunately, I did not read it all. I’m Not impressed at all with these women. They would be more interesting if they were elected leaders themselves. The first lady thing is a white creation and it’s a patronising crumb to women but they are to me still like a political Barbie. Women should not aspire to this but can go further.
a hammagaadji, praia, CV

Mrs Koroma you are a coup de grace. I LOVE you for that and I wish only 10% of those in the corridors of power had the same intuition as yours. You are great, and will be greater if you maintain your feelings to the letter.
Lazarus Nyamandwe, Gaberone, Botswana

How are these ladies relevant? I’m not sure as to how they affect the state of affairs in any country if at all, a distraction. I think they better stay on a low key and let their husbands do what he’s elected to do.

Overall, I see this project as a waste of money and not in any way important at all to the issues affecting the general populace of any country.

More like a distraction to that their other halves (husband that is) while they stash the countries’ funds into foreign bank accounts and yeah…they do it with style…and passion!!!
Young Ya Bhoy, London, UK

A waste of money because they do not run any of their NGOs when their husbands has not become president and as such I regard the whole lot as money making venture where politicians and contactors who are looking for one favour or another to contribute money. Why do the first ladies dump their NGO as soon as their husband is out of power?
amaechi, lagos nigeria

I most at first register my proud gratitude to our able First Ladies in this our corrupt continent (AFRICA), tenky-tenky, beeva-beeva, huray-huray, well done and thanks to you all.

In my own opinion i consider our continent First Ladies as the ream for our Presidents fights towards the complete eradication of corruption from our continents, the stony efforts towards developments and the effort towards our long awaiting unionism and single set of Governorship for all Africans.
Ibrahim Alusine Mansaray, Freetown, Sierra Leone

Fantastic. The first ladies have made us all proud. I hope their husbands will listen to note their ideas. They will not lie to them or paint life as all rosy .Sierra Leonean men should note what their first lady said. Please publish in the local papers what the ladies said.
james allie, london, uk

I want to believe that there should be an office establish for First ladies even though they were not elected. I feel they should be working with the less fortunate. I do pray that one day we will establish this in Africa and the world.
Rebecca T Knowlden, Clay-Ashland, Liberia

Really! The wife of the president of Ghana gets her ideas from ‘trees; birds; dogs; plants’; and ‘nature’. Talks to her ‘dogs as she would to human beings’?
Kofi Ellison, Washington, D.C. via Asuonwun, Ghana

It is my considered opinion that African First Ladies should select special projects in their countries and spearhead efforts to improve the lives of their citizens. This includes health, education or the improvement of the personal wellbeing of their citizens. They should go out and assess the needs of their people. They should seek funds from outside government resources to help their people. The less fortunate citizens should be their main target.
Saba Kla-Williams, Germantown, Maryland

In most cases, society seems to view or judge the first ladies through the eyes of their husbands. African first ladies are no exception to this standard. The first ladies could be a force for good if they were viewed in their own right. As mentioned in the comment, these women are professionals and it would be better if they went about doing as much good as possible. They should not expect to be genuinely showered with praise while they husbands are at the helm of power. Sometimes, people realize one’s positive contributions after the person is off the scene. It fits one African proverb: “You cannot tell the full measure of a frog until it is dead”. One great person ever lived said, “the prophet has no honour in his own hometown”. First ladies, do good because it is good. Your children and grandchildren will reap what you sow today.
Wenson L Masoka, Berrien Springs, MI, USA

No doubt that African’s first ladies are contributing, rather actively to the development of Africa especially where their fellow women are concerned, helping to enlighten the young ones thereby reducing the threat and chances of contracting disease like HIV/Aids. They should be greatly supported, their husbands can’t do all.
Ruth Akorah, Akwa, Nigeria

I think the Africa’s first ladies need to be educated about Politics. This will help to eliminate the shame and disgrace of our people, in terms of corruptions and civil war. They should be given what they are only entitle to. Our children need to be in school and not in the street selling groundnuts. This is where the rest of the money must go. Health care, social programs and the creation of jobs. If the needs of the people are not met, then it is a waste of money.
Momolu Shannon, Brooklyn, New York

They are not a waste of money provided they mission is a good cause for the improvement of society. We as voters should know that every President that we vote for comes with a 1st lady that should also have their office which will assist them in implementing their actions. Unlike in our country where our President has so many wives and I think its unfair to us tax payers because we fund their extravagant lifestyles, which in my opinion is unethical. The presidents must be subjected for state funds to only maintain 1 1st lady and as it costs millions of rands to funds all his wives even while the country goes without some services due to lack of funds.
Kelebogile Mogafe, Groblersdal, South Africa

This is a waste of the BBC’s money. No wonder why Murdoch is angry with the British government. Is this what you call news interviewing wives of dictators like Museveni? The BBC needs to restructure and I hope David Cameron will stop this rot.
John Robertson, Boston

Africa’s first ladies could be useful if they get down to the grassroots, observe and understand the needs of the masses who make up the majority of the population. This way they can assist the vulnerable and needy and also intervene in the social life of the people. My first lady is surely a force to reckon with in the health domain. meanwhile some just waste state resources travelling and dressing well.
akwanka berka gladys , yaounde cameroon

Hi Dear

Surely it is a waste of time and money have offices of the first ladies. They only wish to fantasy and that’s all. They could work through credible NGOs/CBOs/CDAs (Non Governmental Organizations/Community Based Organizations/Faith Based Organizations/Community Development Associations) and their names would still ring a bell and be heard.

Lady Vickie Uremma Onyekuru, Lagos, Nigeria

Hello Mrs Edwards, thank you for this article, it is refreshing to know about the views of our first ladies of Africa. These ladies are not a waste of money because they did not choose to be in the position they are in. They are making a big different to their respective countries and as a result they have championed the causes of disease and done tireless charity work to raise money for curable sicknesses in Africa. As the current Miss West Africa i am raising awareness of the plight of HIV/AIDS in Sierra Leone. Mosquito net for everyone.
Shireen Benjamin, London England

From what happened in Nigeria recently, I do not think that Mrs Turai Yar’Adua was a force for good.
John Opara, Atlanta, USA

They are a force for good because their work mostly involves charity work. The needy needs help. I am not comfortable with Mrs Museveni; being the president’s wife, what is the point of wanting to be an ‘MP or CABINET MINISTER when already she is above these post. This is pure power hungry.
Patrick Chule, Kabwe Zambia

Africa’s first ladies are part of everything that is wrong with Africa as a continent! These women are extremely powerful; and so should have used their powers for the good of grass-root citizenry. But when you look at the continent with it’s endemic poverty, poor education system, conflicts, and power-hungry leaders, it then becomes obvious that these strategically placed women have failed their mandate.
Dandy Ahuruonye, Dublin, Ireland

Well I am a Ugandan and wonder what Janet Museveni means by saying all that about President Museveni’s family making the state a family affair is rubbish. The wife is a Minister and MP, the brother Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh is a general in the army and a Minister, the son Muhoozi Kainerugaba is a Major in the army and commands the brigade (if not battalion) that guards the President. As if that is not enough almost all the major corporations which were nationalised have ended up in the hands of the first family.
Ssalongo Mulumba, Kampala Uganda

Africa first ladies are force for good because of their activities in developing women empowerment and also their fight against child trafficking in Africa.
Chiuba, Portharcourt, Nigeria

I think most of these Presidents’ wives are job seekers like their husbands. They do nothing for anybody & they are only interested in their own immediate needs & future pensions. Especially in a country like Nigeria, Presidents are treated like the emperors & their wives, the empresses
Taiwo Olaniyi, Birmingham UK

Even in our pre colonial political setting, there were powerful ladies besides powerful kings and chiefs. In a polygamous society like the Great Kingdom of Buganda, kings’ wives were not very influential. However there were a Queen Mother (Namasole) and a Princess Royal (Nnaalinnya) who were very powerful. So first ladies should remain influential even if they don’t go for elective politics.
Ahmed Kateregga Musaazi, Kampala, Uganda

African first ladies are a waste of money! they don’t care about societal problems. they are just tools of their husbands.
Mohamed Hussein, Garissa, Kenya

It has been said that ‘Behind any successful man, is a woman.’ I respect our first ladies for the course they pursue and the support they give to the presidents. The late Maruyam Babagida initiated the better life for rural women during her time. This programme was a huge success. Africa’s first ladies are definitely a force for good. In the western world, Michele Obama is fighting childhood obesity.
Omorodion Osula, Boston, USA

My own first lady of the republic of Sierra Leone is a force for good, she is well mature among those other women seeking to have to an affair with her husband, she is very pretty like she said during the interview, she is my role model and i love and cherish are her so much. may God continued to keep her under his wings
Brenda, Sierra Leone, Freetown

A complete waste of money and a tool being used solely for self-enrichment. these so called first lady roles can easily be done by other even more efficient people. Lesotho has the office of the first lady and i wish i was in a country where there is no such. i hate it.
Mahao, Maseru, Lesotho

These powerful ladies have a big influence on our african society. they have a large following, especially among the women folk and young school girls. Their behaviour and personality is very important as it is likely to shape behaviour of the young ones. As role models they are expected not to be political. They are expected to work with various charities and NGOs promoting the welfare of children and women, who are very marginalised in our African settings. Viva Thandiwe Banda, Viva Zambia.
Moffat Bili, Lusaka, Zambia

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