GABORONE, Botswana — If Michelle Obama arrived at the White House as a reluctant first lady, her visit to southern Africa over the past week has offered the best view yet of how that aversion has fallen away as she has embraced the power that comes with her role.
On her trip — part official diplomatic mission and part personal pilgrimage — she has displayed her version of soft diplomacy. She completed 20 events, along with stops at a few big tourist attractions.
Obama has styled herself as a global mom in chief, offering hugs to poor children in Johannesburg's sprawling Zandspruit Township; as a drop-in mentor to high-schoolers from disadvantaged communities in Cape Town; and as a playful children's health advocate doing flat-as-a-board push-ups with former Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
During her week in South Africa and Botswana — her most ambitious solo international visit — the first lady offered a rare glimpse of other aspects of her personality. There is the stern parent, who told the White House cleaning staff that her daughters would make their own beds, and the modern-day feminist repeating a mantra of the South African women's movement: "If you hit a woman, you hit a rock," she said in her only keynote speech of the trip.
In an interview with reporters traveling with her, Obama called being first lady "a big bright light" and said she sees her role internationally as "empowering future leaders."
"If they're not ready, then the struggle continues," she said. "But we also know that a lot of young people need to know they can do it. … And sometimes hearing it from someone that they look up to … gives them a little more of a boost."
Obama's approach has resonated here. She is admired as the "first black lady U.S." and the historic symbolism of having her African-American family in the White House has not waned — particularly throughout this continent, where her husband's election was celebrated with fervor. Newspaper headlines in 2008 asked whether, as the first U.S. president with African roots, Barack Obama would be Africa's "superhero."
An 18-hour flight away from political battles in Washington and the requirements of the campaign trail — where the first lady has already begun stumping for her husband's re-election effort — Michelle Obama was free to push her agenda unencumbered from domestic politics. And her popularity seemed to be as high as it is at home, maybe higher.
After she gave short remarks Friday at a luncheon of 23 young women in a lush garden cafe in Gaborone called Botswana's Green Diamond, Obama was approached from every direction. The young women, who were invited by the U.S. Embassy to see her, wore suits, dresses and freshly braided hair and covered their mouths in what looked like awe as she came closer. Those who could not get close enough to touch her snapped pictures. Obama drew into an embrace anyone within arm's length.
At Regina Mundi church, an antiapartheid landmark in Soweto where Obama spoke to 2,000 people on Wednesday —her largest crowd of the trip — she was similarly surrounded.
Banker Zodwa Pakade, 35, who sat in the crowd, said the first lady made a special connection.
"She's got energy. She's an individual and human," Pakade said. "She's an inspiration to women. She cares for people and for us."
Family was a theme of Obama's trip. She traveled with her daughters, Malia, 12, and Sasha, 10; her mother, Marian Robinson; and her niece Leslie Robinson, 15, and nephew Avery Robinson, 19. Obama's daughters, who are rarely in the public eye in the United States, were part of her diplomacy.
At a day-care center in Zandspruit Township, Obama and her daughters read from Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat, and on another day they helped her paint a mural. They ended the trip with a family safari in the South African bush were they saw elephants, wildebeest and other animals.
Kristina Schake, the first lady's communications director, said her boss has made clear that "one of the most important things for her daughters in this job is to open them up to experiences like this."