There isn’t much that distinguishes Melania Trump’s recent Africa type trip to the continent from previous ones of other Western celebrities or VVIPs. The right photo-ops have of course been taken—solemn photos in the shadows of Ghana’s slave castles, adorable moments with baby elephants in Nairobi, kissing African babies, and being pictured with as many African children as could be squeezed into such a quick trip.
We Africans have watched from the sidelines with mild amusement or a complete disinterest as we play along with the whole performance wondering what the purpose is.
The most newsworthy item of the whole trip though was the US first lady’s “colonial chic” safari outfit that she donned in Kenya (white shirt, jodhpurs, riding boots and of course the offensive pith helmet.) With not much by way of content to inspire the African and international media, some have focused on the ambivalence about her trip. Another key question among fellow Africans I’ve spoken with has been—what was the purpose of her trip? And who was the intended audience? No one seems to know. With little else to talk about, most of what has been written about her trip focuses on her fashion choices.
Perhaps though, this is a moment to focus on the complete irony of this trip in the light of what the Trump administration represents and does. Melania Trump visited quite a few countries that were definitely on her husband’s list of shithole countries. As she lays a wreath at the slave castle in Ghana promising never to forget the hardships of slaves who were shipped across the Atlantic, Trump continues to attack their descendants when they kneel during the national anthem during football games to protest against police brutality, particularly toward African Americans, and racial oppression.
As the first lady gets playfully bumped by baby elephants at the elephant orphanage in my hometown of Nairobi, one can’t help but contrast this with the president’s own sons (Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump’s) hunting trips to Africa where they get to bump off some wildlife. It also doesn’t help matters that the Trump administration recently lifted an Obama-era ban on elephant trophy imports from Zambia and Zimbabwe.
With her final stop in Egypt —one of the African countries with the highest Muslim populations, one cannot help but think of her husband’s Muslim ban.
As Mrs Trump kisses and hugs black and brown children, one contrasts this scene with that of the Trump Administration taking brown children from their families at the US borders.
It is difficult not be left bewildered by the irrelevance of what was described by the Associated Press as Mrs Trump’s “first big solo international trip, aiming to make child well-being the focus of a five-day, four-country tour that will take her to every corner of the vast and impoverished continent.”
Every corner. Indeed.
It is quite apt that #MelaniainAfrica is bringing up movie references—Indiana Jones, Lawrence of Arabia, Out of Africa. For what can this all be, when her actions clearly contradict the words and actions of the administration she effectively represents?
There is a lot of deja vu in her trip something that makes the whole affair seem poorly rehearsed and lazily performed. We Africans are playing the role of the welcoming host, though lacking in enthusiasm—we bring out our dancers, the smiling, flag-waving children, and then even more dancers.
Mrs Trump playing the role of a white savior who blesses the locals with her presence as she quickly does her Africa tour in what Hollywood has convinced some white people is appropriate garb for an Africa trip. In Cairo, she took time to indirectly respond to the criticism of her pith helmet outfit, by asking the media to focus on what she does rather than what she wears. It’s difficult ask with this particular former model.
Or perhaps there is really a little colonialist in all of us and we’re dying to channel our inner Karen Blixen in our wildest dreams. In this performance, the pith helmet might after all have been the most suitable part of the costume to complete the act.
One thing though is clear—the actors playing in this film were all given different scripts hence the dissonance between what is said and what is done—by those representing the Trump administration. What Africans are left wondering is what was the purpose of what we’ve just watched and who the intended audience was.
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