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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Melania Trump begins first solo trip to Africa

The visit will take her to across the continent to Egypt, Malawi, Kenya and Ghana

Melania Trump left Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Monday, October 1, for a trip to Africa. Reuters
Melania Trump left Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Monday, October 1, for a trip to Africa. Reuters

With a wave and tweet, first lady Melania Trump headed for Africa on Monday on her first big solo international trip, aiming to make child well-being the focus of a five-day, four-country tour.

The first lady opens her first-ever visit to Africa on Tuesday in Ghana in the west, followed by stops in Malawi in the south, Kenya in the east and Egypt in the north-east. She departed Washington DC on Monday with a rare wave to the press corps and an enthusiastic tweet.

Ms Trump's first extended turn on the world stage outside the shadow of United States President Donald Trump could still be complicated by her husband, who has spoken of the continent in impolite and even vulgar terms.

That leaves the first lady with some fence-mending duties.

"She's got some heavy lifting to do on this trip 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 practice a softer form of diplomacy, showing an 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 with Trump at the White House in late August. Mr Trump also met last week in New York with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi of Egypt.

Mr 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.

Days before the first lady was to board a US government plane for the flight across the Atlantic, Trump declared at the United Nations that he and his wife "love Africa".

Ms Trump's five days on the continent will feature a mix of visits to hospitals, schools and shelters as she focuses on the well-being of children.

Child welfare is an important issue for Ms Trump, the mother of a 12-year-old son. She focuses on the issue in the US through her initiative "Be Best", launched this year. This week's trip will mark her first extended period promoting the programme and its goals abroad, separate from an event held in London during a visit with the president to the UK in July.

A former fashion model born in Slovenia and now a naturalised US citizen, the 48-year-old Ms Trump has travelled extensively with the president, including to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy, Brussels, France, Japan and South Korea. She was in Finland for the president's July summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin but did not go to Singapore for his June meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Her only other international foray was brief: a September 2017 day trip to Toronto to join Britain's Prince Harry at a military athletic competition.

Often seen as a reluctant first lady — she did not fully move into the White House until nearly six months after Trump took office, due to her son's schooling in New York — Ms Trump has kept a low profile in comparison to her predecessors. She was sidelined for several weeks after kidney surgery in May.

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Predecessors Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama all made multiple trips abroad without their spouses during their administration's two terms. Such travel has become expected of first ladies, and a similar excursion was viewed as a next step in Ms Trump's evolution in one of the world's most scrutinised roles.

"The first lady, when she travels to a foreign country, can carry the flag and there's a great deal she could do to engender good feeling about the United States and I hope she can do that," Myra Gutin of Rider University in New Jersey, who studies first ladies, said of Mrs Trump.

Mr Trump raised ire across Africa earlier this year after a derogatory private complaint about the continent's countries was leaked to journalists.

He later offered a partial denial in public but privately defended his remarks, the Associated Press reported in January. He also didn't deny the comment when he was asked about it while hosting Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at the White House in April.

The president further roiled South Africa when he claimed on Twitter that the country was seizing farms and that high numbers of farmers were being killed. He sent the tweet after watching a Fox News segment about land issues in South Africa.

While killings of farmers have been taking place for more than 20 years and are widely seen as part of South Africa's high crime rate, experts say white farmers have not been the target. Nor are there signs of widespread killings, they said.