ACCRA, Ghana — Michelle Obama is wildly popular at home and recently charmed Europe, but it’s possible she would go unnoticed at Mabel Ofosuhene’s breakfast stand in the capital of Ghana, the West African state hosting the Obamas in July.
“I don’t know anything about her,” the 26-year-old said of America’s first lady. Not everyone, it seems, has fallen under Michelle Obama’s spell.
It may well happen during the scheduled two-day visit, the president’s first official stop in sub-Saharan Africa. But even some Ghanaian women who recognize America’s first black first lady want a closer look.
“I’m not expecting a whole lot,” University of Ghana professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo, head of the school’s Center for Gender Studies and Advocacy, said of both Obamas, “and certainly not from the first lady. This is a tiny country in a huge continent. I’m not sure we loom large on the radar.”
The July visit to one of Africa’s few functioning democracies is the final leg of a trip that includes stops in Russia and Italy. Europeans got their first glimpse of Michelle Obama in April, and the reviews were dazzling.
Obama, a descendant of slaves brought from Africa, is a Harvard-educated lawyer and one-time work supervisor of her future husband. She inspired London schoolgirls, describing her humble beginnings and telling them their success “will be determined by your own confidence and fortitude.”
She survived a breach of royal protocol — gasp, she touched the back of Queen Elizabeth II, who reciprocated the gesture — and scored fashion points alongside Carla Bruni, a former model who married French President Nicholas Sarkozy.
Michelle Obama has embraced causes domestically, including supporting military families. A trip to a developing state like Ghana — 30 percent of its people live in poverty, down from 40 percent a decade ago — would be an ideal time to unveil an international cause. But Obama’s spokesperson declined to comment on the first lady’s plans in the former British colony. There is, however, a scheduled visit to Cape Coast, home to former slave forts.
There's no shortage of causes to promote.
Felicia Darkwah founded a health clinic on the rural outskirts of Accra after her 28-year-old daughter died from an aneurysm late in her first pregnancy. Her granddaughter, now 11, was delivered and is healthy.
“Ninety-nine percent are preventable,” she said of maternal deaths in childbirth. “Sometimes the negligence is right in the hospital. A lot of them are due to lack of knowledge about what is happening and what they should do for themselves while pregnant.”
More than half of the 536,000 maternal deaths worldwide in 2005 were in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization. One in 26 women in Africa will die from a childbirth-related problem. Bacterial infection is the major cause.
The African Women’s Development Fund, which distributes grants to women’s groups across the continent including Darkwah’s clinic, says HIV-AIDS continues to plague Africa.
“Women living with HIV-AIDS are the very ones who earn money to look after other members of their family,” said Abigail Burgesson, the Accra-based group’s director of special projects. “At the same time it is women who do not own property. They do not have rights to land. It is young girls whose parents are leaving or dying of HIV-AIDS that must stop school to look after their families.”
Ampofo, the University of Ghana professor, said some Africans are wary of their first ladies because of politics. She said Nana Rawlings, wife of former two-term Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings, amassed too much political clout at the expense of the women’s movement.
Still, she respects Michelle Obama’s credentials.
“She’s not the woman next door. She may have come from everyday kind of roots, but she went to Ivy League, and she’s a lawyer,” Ampofo said. “The fact that there’s an African-American couple in the White House, it gives hope that things can happen. To that extent it’s encouraging.”
Role models closer to home, she said, include Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who in 2005 became Africa’s first elected female head of state. Ghana swore in its first female chief justice two years ago, and President John Atta Mills’ administration this year installed women in the posts of attorney general and speaker of Parliament — both firsts.
But even more inspiring for many women, the professor said, were the role models “that nobody knows — their grandmothers who worked hard to put them through school,” for example.
Sarah Mills, a young professional, concurred, pointing out that the average African woman raised the nation’s future teachers and doctors alone because of absentee fathers.
But Mills, a 2007 graduate of Ashesi University in Accra, where she now works as development and alumni relations officer, said Obama had no peer.
“I am yet to see a first lady who will be inspiring enough to have her picture hang on my bedroom wall and in my purse,” Mills said, referring to Obama photos she cut from Oprah Winfrey’s magazine.
“I look at Michelle Obama and I smile,” Mills said. “I love her beautiful mind, her heart and her spirit. She’s one of my favorite people in the world. I find myself thinking in certain situations, ‘What would Michelle Obama do?’”
In the small village of Sogakope, however, 50 miles east of the capital, recent high school graduates like Rosemary Kudiabor have had far less exposure to either Obama.
“I don’t know anything about the first lady,” Kudiabor said while taking a break from selling bread to passing motorists.
The 17-year-old, who doesn’t yet know if she’ll go to college, pointed to the dozen or so women who, like her, race to the windows of passing cars and taxis, hoping to make sales. A package of two loaves costs about $1.40.
“A lot of women are selling — you can see them running up and down," she said. "We need jobs.”
More GlobalPost dispatches from Ghana:
Ghana's gold rush
Cell phone waste
Ghana shoots for sports diversity
View Larger Map