I am not a fan of things Trumpian, but I felt some sympathy for US First Lady Melania Trump when she pushed back against the noise over her fashion sense during her just-ended four-nation tour of Africa.
First, there was a lot of copy about how she arrived wearing high heels (the point, I guess, being that you must really dress down when visiting Africa’s poor).
And then, the pith helmet, which, to quote one of the many derisory remarks online, “led some to accuse her of having an ‘outdated understanding’ of Africa, due to the association between the headwear and colonial rule on the continent.”
Mrs Trump said people should not obsess about what she was wearing, but focus on the important accomplishments of a trip that took her to Ghana, Malawi, Kenya, and Egypt.
The pith helmet was a bad call, but the high-heels criticism was surely sexist.
When Bill Clinton, and then George Bush, visited Africa when they were US presidents, they both obliged with pricy Texan boots. In their cases, they were hailed by some for cutting a muscular image, befitting the leader of the world superpower.
In Melania’s case, the criticism is partly drawn from the regressive idea that a woman in high heels cannot be serious or, even intelligent.
It’s also part of a more insidious development. Increasingly, important discussions about why leaders (and spouses) from the rich world, and Western celebrities flock to Africa to embrace some misery or the other, are being drowned out by these sideshows.
When British Prime Minister Theresa May visited, her stilted dancing was all the rage in the headlines. May, however, avoided fashion troubles by wearing a jacket from “African fabric” by a Nigerian-linked designer.
French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron plays this game well. During a July visit, as Reuters put it, he “visited a nightclub founded by legendary Nigerian Afrobeat star Fela Kuti, which has a reputation as a hedonistic haven filled with frenetic music, scantily clad podium dancers and the stench of marijuana smoke.”
It seemed it was enough to make Macron “one of the people,” leaving the real deals he might have cut with Nigerian leaders unexamined. May is a bad dancer, so fellows either laughed at or felt sorry for her. But what did she take back to London in her suitcase?
The point has been made that Western celebrities and leaders use Africa’s poverty backdrop to morally cleanse themselves, or strike a pose of caring about saving the world on the cheap.
Well and good, but the issue that should be examined before that is why Africa never runs out of hungry people for rich and powerful Westerners (and these days Asians) to feed; homeless children to house; hundreds of thousands of women raped and brutalised in war to support; millions of children who still don’t go to school, and when they do, have no textbooks?
There are endless villages and towns in darkness to light. Oh yes, there are those endangered wild animals that our people haven’t poached or eaten to be stroked and protected.
There is a way to keep Melania and her pith helmet, and May and her bad dancing, away. Let’s give them a reason not to come. Let’s obsess more about how we do that.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]