Last year, Michelle Obama was in Johannesburg. And she wanted to meet me. Ok, maybe I was being a tad delusional. The invitation read:
The U.S. Mission to South Africa cordially invites you to
A Young African Women Leaders Forum featuring
The First Lady of the United States of America, Mrs. Michelle Obama,
on Wednesday morning, the twenty-second of June
from six-thirty a.m.
Venue: Regina Mundi Catholic Church
1149 Khumalo St., Soweto
I was just at the end of my youth year and I have an inflated sense of myself so it could only be natural that I would be one of Young African Women Leaders that Michelle wanted to meet. I ignored the Forum bit. If Michelle and her peeps wanted to say I was part of a Forum then dammit, I would be. Later that week, I had an upcoming meeting with my publisher from Cape Town so when she emailed confirming details of our meeting, I could not help slipping in that I (and not her), and one of her other authors Cynthia Jele were going for an inclusive breakfast pow-wow with Michelle O.
I thought of the conversations I would have with Michelle. The stuff we have in common: her man grew up in Hawaii, I partied in Hawaii errm, went to university there; I am a mother as is she. Then there were other not-so-obvious things. Like, she is a lawyer and, well, I wanted to be a lawyer when I was in high school. Even read John Grisham and everything. Oh, and she has a daughter called Malia, and I have a Hawaiian friend called Malia. See, so much in common. I imagined we would probably be about twenty Young African Women Leaders sitting on a round table with Michelle and chatting about how we are solving Africa’s problems while having breakfast. I had planned that I was going to be a loyal South African and even though she would probably be having coffee, when asked what I wanted to drink, I would say ‘rooibos please,’ in my most refined voice. I did not mind that I had to scan my ID so that a security check could be done on me by Special Forces, the CIA or someone. I was having breakfast with Michelle, see? And because I am awesome like that, I went across town to meet up with fab writer Fiona Snyckers for autographed copies of her Trinity books because I was absolutely certain that Malia would enjoy this taste of Africa. I am considerate like that. So far, so good.
On the day in question, I woke up early, was all dressed and ready to go by 5.30am, then went to wait for Jele at Southdale as I was hitching a ride with her. When she arrived, we made our way to Soweto discussing just what we would talk to Michelle about.
When we got to Maponya Mall in Soweto, there were tents to the right verifying security information. There were also at least five buses waiting to pick people up to take them to Regina Mundi where it seemed my expected tete-a-tete with Michelle and nineteen other ‘chosen’ was actually going to be a rally. I realized I was not the only person who had assumed this was going to be a cozy little gathering with Mrs. O. Spotted Ferial H over there; and that side June Josephs Langa; and behind Cynthia and me, Lindiwe Mazibuko. Having Lindiwe close to us provided my first entertainment of the day.
Jele: I know you from somewhere.
Me (to Lindiwe): Actually no. Do you know who she (pointing to Jele) is?
Lindiwe (squinting eyes and trying to be polite): her face seems familiar…
Me: Yes, but do you know who she is?
Lindiwe shakes head uncertainly.
Me: So how do you hope to run the next government when you don’t know some of your country’s most celebrated writers? This is Cynthia Jele, winner of the Commonwealth Best First Book…write her name down and when you are going back to Cape Town make sure you get her book.
Lindiwe looks a little sheepish.
Jele: no man, but this girl is very familiar Zooks, who are you?
Me (jumping in so I can seem clever): Hhawu Jele, this is Lindiwe Mazibuko, DA Spokesperson Lindiwe?
Jele(light bulb): Ah-ha. The Tea Girl! How are you?
Lindiwe took the Tea Girl thing in her stride and we had one of those ‘standing in line with strangers’ chats.
We showed our IDs again, registered, and then we got on the buses and off to Regina Mundi a few minutes away we went. When we arrived, we had to stand in line again. There was a search, we had to switch our phones off and on to show that they were real phones, and then we got to the secure section. On arrival, we each received a bottle of water and some security guy advised us to use the Port-a-Loo if we needed to go because once we entered the church, we would not be allowed to get out. So we dutifully did as suggested and we were soon in Regina Mundi church. Ja sies!
Twas a sea of humanity in there. Ok, maybe not a sea but there were over a thousand people in there. At about 9am (we had been in the place since 7.30 so perhaps I should not complain as a certain President Kibaki has been known to arrive at 2pm for an event with a time plan of 10am), a bevy of young ladies walked in and we all had to stand up and clap for them. Turned out these were the Young African Women Leaders to be celebrated and not Cynthia, Lindiwe and the rest of us almost unyouth.
There was a speech from the Gauteng Premier, Nomvula Mokonyane, followed by Baleka Mbete on behalf of the ANC, and then we heard from Graca Machel. All the speeches were of the ‘sisterhood’, ‘sister Michelle is back home’, ‘how these brilliant young ladies should emulate this wonderful woman’ variety.
And then Graca called Michelle. And as Michelle walked up to the podium, there was a standing ovation and lots of whooping and yelling. Yup. This being my first rally-type thing, it was only then I understood the elation of the mob. Flip, I certainly understand the Republican and Democratic national Conventions better now.
Michelle celebrated the Young African women Leaders. These were young women from all over the continent who have served their communities and Africa in ways that are humbling. Hearing some of the tales I wondered at my arrogance to think I could even be considered one of them. Among them was one of the most beautiful young people I know, Dr. Kopano Matlwa – writer, medical doctor, founder of an organization of student doctors imparting primary health care to poor communities, winner of so-many literary prizes etc etc and all this before she was 25. And there were other over-achieving little upstarts like her from all over the continent. Forty in all, I think the number was.
I was also taken by how Michelle is probably Barack’s biggest p.r. officer. she constantly began the next paragraph of her speech with, ‘my husband says…’ and of course right at the end she told all assembled that we should all learn from the young women assembled and not allow anything to stand in our way. If anyone felt they were failing and wanted to give up they should remember her husband’s words and say, ‘YES WE …’ yup. You guessed it.
And that was the end of the show.
At 11am, hungry and tired after waking up at an ungodly hour to prepare for the breakfast that almost was, Cynthia and I walked out of regina Mundi to get back on the bus to Maponya Mall and look for breakfast.
And the books?
I gave them to Baleka Mbete who I hope delivered them to Michelle for Malia. But should the books not have arrived to Malia, a word to all of you. If you have a teenage daughter, niece, friend the one thing you could do for them this National Book Week is get them Fiona Snyckers’ Trinity Rising or Trinity on Air. You will seal their love for books in one purchase.