JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — From meeting Nelson Mandela, to doing push ups with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and reading books to young students, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama gave an inspirational message to South Africans: "Yes, you can!"
Obama practiced what she preached by traveling on her landmark journey to Africa with her mother and two daughters. The three generations of females emphasized Obama's emphasis on the importance of women in leadership positions in Africa. While in South Africa, she also honored the history of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Though the first lady has traveled abroad solo before, the White House promoted her six-day journey as her first major overseas trip without her husband.
South Africans were ecstatic to host Obama and her family Monday through Thursday, but the empty space alongside the first lady did not go unnoticed. Many believe that President Obama should have made good on his promise of supporting African countries in their struggles for financial and democratic prosperity by making a trip to Africa. Obama has only spent about a day in Africa so far during his presidency.
Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, has faced criticism for not spending more time on the continent himself. His only trip as president was to Ghana in 2009 for one night. But Michelle Obama strongly defended her husband's committment to Africa.
"There are a lot of expectations for this president. And so there's bound to be people who feel like it's never enough," Mrs. Obama said to four reporters traveling with her on the week-long African trip.
"But this trip is ... a direct reflection of his support and his interest and his view of the importance of Africa to the world and to the future of the world. That's why I'm here."
President Obama is in the middle of tough talks with congressional Republicans to agree a deal to raise the U.S. debt limit and reduce the deficit. With the 2012 election looming, his primary political focus has been domestic.
"This is his trip. He would love to be here. But there's a lot of work to do on the domestic front, and particularly at this time there are a lot of critical issues," Mrs. Obama said, according to Reuters. "I think his record and the number of senior officials who have spent so much time in Africa are ... a reflection of this administration's commitment to this continent."
The White House hopes the first lady's trip to South African and Botswana will highlight strong democracies on the continent and serve as an example for others.
In a nod to that goal, Obama praised Botswana during remarks at a meeting of young women leaders.
"It is a pleasure to be in this beautiful country that embodies what my husband has called 'a vision of Africa on the move'," she said. "That is Botswana, a thriving democracy, a vital society, a fast-growing economy, and more importantly a kind and generous people."
Obama and her family are scheduled to take a safari on Saturday and head back to Washington on Sunday.
On her busy agenda in Johannesburg, the first lady met with anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, 92. At their 20-minute meeting, Mandela signed a book of his quotations for the first lady while her daughters, mother, niece and nephew watched. The Obama family also visited the Apartheid Museum.
The next day the Obamas went to Soweto township where she saw the Hector Pieterson Memorial which honors the life of a teenager who was shot and killed by apartheid police during the 1976 Soweto student uprising. Also in Soweto, she delivered a keynote speech at the Young Women Leaders Forum at the historic Regina Mundi church. Mrs. Obama inspired the women by recasting her husband's campaign rallying cry: "Yes, you can!!"
Mrs. Obama also met with one of South Africa's first ladies, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, as well as Nelson Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, according to the International Business Times.
In Cape Town, Obama's plans to go to Robben Island were scuttled by bad weather. High winds and stormy seas stopped the ferry from taking her to the island where Nelson Mandela was jailed for most of the 27 years that he was imprisoned, according to The Washington Post. Mrs Obama met with Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu in Cape Town and the two of them appeared at a rally for physical fitness at the Cape Town soccer stadium.
In Botswana Friday, Mrs. Obama met with President Ian Khama and visited a center that educates teenagers about leadership and HIV/AIDS. She will wrap up her trip with her family on a private safari to see Botswana's famed wildlife, including elephants.