Melania Trump in Malawi: Dirt-Floor School, Zebras on the Lawn

(Bloomberg) -- Melania Trump became the first U.S. first lady to visit Malawi on Thursday, the fourth day of her week-long tour of Africa.

As her husband continued to battle congressional Democrats over the fate of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Melania Trump visited a primary school in the capital of Lilongwe with red-dirt floors, where the teacher-to-student ratio is about 1 to 100.

The children, dressed in dusty uniforms, sat on the ground shoulder-to-shoulder in the hot sun, practicing language skills in English and their native Chichewa.
Malawi is a poor nation where only 10 percent of residents have electricity, and illiteracy, HIV and malaria are serious problems. The first lady spent about five hours in the country before continuing on to Kenya and Egypt.

The students, who each wore a cardboard name tag slung around their necks, listened and recited words back to their teachers while studying the first lady’s entourage of reporters and camera crews.

When the kids answered correctly, the teachers said: “You are the bestie.” The students stood up, hands on waist, and swayed their hips, responding: “I am the bestie.”

Melania Trump handed out textbooks and soccer balls. Signs in the tiny school library said “Be Best,” the first lady’s public campaign, and “ndine opambana” a translation into Chichewa. The small but tidy collection of books included volumes by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Judy Blume and C.S. Lewis.

The school, which has 8,564 students and 77 teachers, will soon get a delivery of fresh textbooks in English and Chichewa -- part of a U.S. Agency for International Development program that has distributed 9.6 million books to 5,600 schools in Malawi, aides said.

‘Melania Me Too’

Trump tweeted while she was at the school: “Our country’s great First Lady, Melania, is doing really well in Africa. The people love her, and she loves them! It is a beautiful thing to see.”

Unlike in Ghana, where the capital city seemed to shrug at the first lady’s visit, people along the road near Chipala Primary school stopped what they were doing to watch, waving and smiling, as Melania Trump’s motorcade passed by. One teenager threw up a middle finger and laughed.

A white woman on the roadside near the U.S. embassy held up a handmade sign as the first lady’s motorcade passed that said “Melania Me Too.” Two other white people held a sign that read “welcome to Malawi #notashithole!” -- a reference to Donald Trump’s now-infamous disparagement of African countries.

Melania Trump has made very few remarks within earshot of reporters during her trip. She publicly mentioned her husband for the first time while in Malawi.

“I’m sure it can be difficult to be away from the states for an extended period of time,” she told gathered U.S. embassy staff. “My husband and I appreciate all that you do.”

U.S. Ambassador Virginia Palmer, a career foreign service officer appointed to the post by Barack Obama who will soon be replaced by Trump pick Robert Scott, also a career foreign service officer, told reporters she was thrilled about the first lady’s visit — and had pushed for it.

Melania Trump visited the Malawi equivalent of the White House for tea with the country’s first lady, Gertrude Mutharika, and watched a traditional dance performance. Three zebras meandered around the front yard.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.