She opens her visit to Africa tomorrow in Ghana in the west, followed by stops in Malawi in the south, Kenya in the east and Egypt in the north-east.
Her first extended turn on the world stage outside the shadow of President Donald Trump could still be complicated by her husband, who has spoken of the continent in impolite and even vulgar terms. That leaves her with some fence-mending duties.
“She has some heavy lifting to do and it’s a little bit unfair because that’s not what a first lady’s trip should be about,” said Judd Devermont, the Africa programme director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. First ladies usually practise a softer form of diplomacy, showing interest in a host nation’s schools, hospitals and arts programmes, and avoiding thornier issues.
Joshua Meservey, a senior Africa policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, countered by noting the “positive engagements” the president has had with some African heads of state, including President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, who met Trump at the White House in August. Trump has also met President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt.
Meservey also noted that the US spends considerable amounts on public health and development initiatives in Malawi, which is among the world’s least-developed countries.
“I think the US-Africa relationship is much bigger than the president’s comments, and it’s been going on for decades and decades,” he said. “Frankly, I suspect the vast majority of average Africans have not heard of any of those dust-ups. It’s very much an elite preoccupation.
“Africans are, generally speaking, very gracious hosts who will roll out the red carpet and do their absolute best to be hospitable,” Meservey said.
Days before the first lady was to depart the US, Trump declared at the UN that he and his wife “love Africa”.
MrsTrump’s five days on the continent will feature a mix of visits to hospitals, schools and shelters.
Child welfare is a top issue for Mrs Trump, the mother of a 12-year-old son. She focuses on the issue in the US through an initiative she launched this year named “Be Best”. This week’s trip will mark her first extended period promoting the programme and its goals abroad.
A former fashion model born in Slovenia, the 48-year-old Mrs Trump has travelled extensively with the president. Often seen as a reluctant first lady, Mrs Trump has kept a low profile in comparison to her predecessors. Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama all made multiple trips abroad without their spouses during their administration’s two terms. AP