First Lady tells Young Africans: Yes We Can!

Jun 22, 2011 7:57am

ABC News' Dana Hughes (@dana_hughes) reports from Johannesburg:

First Lady Michelle Obama received a standing ovation as she delivered the keynote address at the Young Women's Leadership Forum at the Regina Mundi Church in Soweto. The church was a refuge from police bullets for students protesting apartheid 35 years ago.   

Graca Machel, the wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela introduced Mrs. Obama, calling her “a daughter of African descent…and the queen of our world.” The statement was a play on the Latin translation of Regina Mundi, which means “Queen of the world.”

Mrs. Obama spoke with emotion as she evoked both South Africa and America's fraught racial histories, telling the crowd of 2000 mostly young people that the sacrifices of the generation of freedom fighters before them have paved the way.

"It is because of them that we are able to gather here today. It is because of them that so many of these young women leaders can now pursue their dreams," said Mrs. Obama.  "It is because of them that I stand before you as First Lady of the United States of America."

She challenged young Africans, and women especially, to realize that today's struggles: poverty, gender inequality, HIV/AIDS are just as pervasive as the oppression from apartheid and colonialism. She referenced Obama's background as a community organizer and hers giving up a cushy job at a law firm to work in the public sector, as examples of how individuals can make small differences in their communities. 

"My husband and I didn’t change any laws, or win any awards, or get our pictures in the newspaper.  But we were making a difference in people’s lives.  We were part of something greater than ourselves.  And we knew that in our own small way, we were helping to build a better world," she told the audience.

The first lady also gave a shout out to a few of the young women leaders in the audience, whom she'll meet with during the trip. She pronounced all of their names with perfect local diction. The audience laughed and clapped when Mrs. Obama mentioned a woman named Gqibelo Dandala and used the click sound in the Xhosa language from which the name derived. She delivered an impromptu “You go, girl” while telling the story of one of the leaders, a Ugandan woman who paid her own way through school and now runs her own business.

She ended the speech by leading the crowd with a spirited chant of "Yes We Can!"

Mrs. Obama’s exit from Regina Mundi was as spirited as her entrance, with throngs of young women and men from the crowd rushing to the front of the church to try and greet her. The first lady, who looked chic in a blue Diane Von Furstenburg suit, didn’t disappoint, staying afterwards for several minutes shaking hands and offering hugs.  

This was the second day of her week-long Africa tour along with her daughters, her mother and niece and nephew. Yesterday she and her family had a private meeting with the anti-apartheid global icon Nelson Mandela. They also viewed an archive of some of his personal mementos made while serving 27 years in prison. Tomorrow she and her family will head to Cape Town where she will speak with more young people at a local university. The first family will also tour Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela served nearly 20 years, which is now a museum. She and her family will round out the trip in neighboring Botswana at the end of the week.

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