A young South African woman, Nthabiseng Shongwe, shares her compelling experience of being in the presense of our First Lady Michelle Obama and the inspiration she drew from Michelle’s presense and address to her and other young South African women.
On June 22, 2011, I walked into the Regina Mundi church in Soweto, after having been searched like a criminal by the American Secret Service, to find myself among thousands who had gathered to hear an address by the US First Lady, Michelle Obama. How lucky was I? Well, I was one of 2 000 “invitations only” guests at the church, that’s how lucky I was!
Hosted by the American Embassy, the US Ambassador to South Africa, Donald Gips, and his wife Elizabeth, Obama addressed the guests, including members of the Young African Women Leaders’ Forum, on issue of building a solid leadership mindset on the continent.
The area behind the church pulpit was decorated with flowers that stood on pedestals, while the illuminated stained-glass windows on the left of the church depicted moments of South Africa’s liberation struggle. The atmosphere was tense with excitement as school children and invited guests waited in anticipation for the First Lady; I too was among the excited.
Slowly the choir rose and began to sing. They were wearing brightly-coloured, traditional Xhosa attire and danced rhythmically to their songs. The audience (myself included) began to sing along, giving the event a warm and welcoming South African feel. It was almost as if I was at my own church.
Graça Machel, wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela, delivered the most beautiful introduction that prefaced Obama’s speech. “We welcome you as a daughter of African heritage, and we can call you the queen of our world,” said Machel. I agree; Michelle Obama may definitely be the current queen of our world!
Finally, after applause and song, the moment of Obama’s much-anticipated speech had arrived. As she approached the stage, holding clasped hands to her chest while fighting back tears, one could see she was moved by her introduction and welcoming. “I want to start by thanking Graça Machel for that just gracious, kind introduction. It is overwhelming,” she said.
Her speech drew on the history of Regina Mundi, which means ”queen of the world” in Latin, paying tribute to leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the US, urging the young women in the audience to follow their example.
“The young people of this continent – you are the heirs of that blood, sweat, sacrifice and love,” she said.
At this point in time I was holding back tears.
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