Jill Biden went to Africa, and all anyone wants to talk about is 2024
LOSITETI, Kenya - The wind picked up, and Jill Biden was suddenly enveloped in a cloud of red dirt, the kind that's impossible to get out of your clothes, the kind that looks like rusty blood when it's wet. That is, if it would ever rain here. The Horn of Africa, including Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, is experiencing its worst drought in recorded history, which is coming just six years after the previous worst drought on record. There are almost no crops, no grass, no brush in this village to hold earth to ground, just some bushes and one big acacia tree that somehow managed to survive. Which is why the 71-year-old first lady of the United States is here in this dust bowl swarming with biting black flies, gulping down bottled water after spending 90 minutes completely outdoors in the blazing African heat. She had devoted at least half of the visit to a listening session with Maasai women, who told her about how much their tribal herding lives had changed now that roughly 45 percent of the cows in Kajiado County have died.
"It's one thing to read about it. It's another thing to see it, and see how the cows, the livestock, they're just flesh and bones, and these women that I talked to are telling me they cannot feed their families," Biden said in an interview with The Washington Post. Already, she pointed out - reiterating talking points the White House had given the news media - the United States is providing 70 percent of the humanitarian aid in this region, or $2.5 billion in 2022. But after seeing the drought in person, she said she would suggest to President Biden that he increase that. "There's just so little for them to eat, and the United States is providing 70 percent of the money. I'll tell him, 'Joe, if we can give more, or if we can reach out to other countries and say, help us, help all these people to live - [we need to do that].' And I think that's what I'll take back to him."
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It was an incongruous scene. Well over 1,000 Maasai had come to see the strange spectacle that had descended on their land. Many of them brought their cattle. Lositeti is the only water source for 12 villages, each with 1,000 to 1,200 people (ever since an elephant trampled the borehole up the road). And nearly every one of them had a cellphone, pointed at Jill Biden as she soft-shoed The Post's questions about the president's possible run in 2024.
In many ways, this five-day trip to Africa was emblematic of Biden's tenure as first lady. She had gone to enormous effort to promote women's empowerment and democracy in Namibia and highlight food insecurity in Kenya. And then Friday afternoon, the entire news cycle around her Africa trip - at least the American news cycle - became subsumed when she all but confirmed during an interview with Darlene Superville of the Associated Press that her husband would run again in 2024, setting off a blaze of headlines. The first lady didn't actually confirm it, though, which means every reporter is pretty much obligated to keep asking the question and reading the tea leaves until she does.
Standing on that arid field in Lositeti two days later, wearing a traditional Maasai beaded necklace with her blue blazer, black sneakers and khakis, Biden seemed determined not to make any more news on that front. In a brief interview that also covered her takeaways from Africa and her granddaughter Naomi Biden's presence on the trip, The Post tried to follow up on her comments that the president "is not done" and that it was "pretty much" now just a matter of when and where to make the announcement.
Did that mean the decision has been made? "Well, I'll say it again, Joe says he intends to run." Isn't she tired of campaigning? "Can I tell you, the things that Joe has done and what we're fighting for in our democracy, I will work 24/7 to keep our democracy strong." (When CNN released its first clip of a one-hour special the network is airing about the trip later this week, including exclusive moments and interviews, it also focused on 2024. When asked if there was any chance her husband would not run, she said: "Not in my book. ... I'm all for it, of course.")
She seemed equally averse to making news with the purported purpose of her trip, as announced by the president in a speech last week in Poland: to highlight how the Russian war in Ukraine is contributing to the food crisis in the Horn of Africa. "Putin tried to starve the world by blocking the ports of the Black Sea to stop Ukraine from exporting its grain. ... And this week my wife Jill Biden is traveling to Africa to help bring attention to this critical issue," the president said, unambiguously. The announcement of her visit mentioned how "Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has increased food insecurity and threatened livelihoods," as well.
But in her brief, impromptu statement after seeing the drought area, Jill Biden didn't reference that issue. Her only mention of the conflict was when she looked into TV cameras and asked for everyone to remember that there are other crises in need of money. "We have to have other countries join us in this global effort to help these people of the region, and unfortunately there is the war in Ukraine," she said. "There is the earthquake in Turkey. I mean, there are a lot of competing interests, but obviously here people actually - livestock, people are starving."
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Biden's trip was part of the administration's aggressive new push to shore up relationships with Africa in the face of increasing influence and investment on the continent from China and Russia. At the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit the president hosted in Washington in December, he announced that eight top administration officials would be making trips to Africa this year. Jill Biden's was essentially the kickoff trip for the principals of the administration - ahead of both the president, who's expected to go this summer, and Vice President Harris. It's her sixth time in Africa, following five trips as second lady in the Obama administration, and makes her the first of the administration's four principals to visit sub-Saharan Africa, and the first principal of an administration to visit Namibia since Vice President Al Gore in 1996.
On the continent, everyone from cabdrivers to baristas seemed to know that America's first lady was in Africa, and was generally thrilled to have her there. Media coverage was wall-to-wall. In Windhoek, Namibia, where she was being shown around by first lady Monica Geingos, she attended a luncheon that a local reporter said contained every important person in the country's government. ("I think they've fallen in love!" crowed a female radio host, speaking of Biden and Geingos.) Namibia is a young democracy, having received independence from South Africa in 1990, after decades of war. On her last day in the country, she passionately extolled democracy and women's empowerment at a speech before 1,300 college students, who are the first generation to be born free of apartheid. They gave her a standing ovation, and were so excited to shake her hand or take a selfie with her in the background that she stayed around for an extra 15 minutes working the line.
In Kenya, which she was visiting for the third time, Biden reminded a group of female leaders in government, business, research and education that they can lead full lives with both families and a career. "We're all sisters," she said, urging the small crowd to come closer, and talking about how she knew the challenges of balance they faced "because I am a working woman." (Biden kept her trip to five days because she wanted to be back for the Tuesday morning English composition class she teaches at Northern Virginia Community College. Her departure for Africa also came just hours after she finished up in the classroom.)
In both countries, Biden also went into informal squatter settlements, where most homes and business were constructed out of metal sheets. At the center of Nairobi, she made her second trip to Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Africa, which she had visited as second lady during her 2010 trip to Kenya. This time in Kibera, she spent an hour listening to female participants talk about Joyful Women, an initiative from Kenyan first lady Rachel Ruto, to set up a system called "table banking," similar to a community loan system, to fund women-run small businesses, no credit history required. In Katutura, Namibia, outside Windhoek, she met with young people who have benefited from the work of Hope Initiatives Southern Africa (HISA), which is the one permanent, concrete-walled structure in the neighborhood, with programs aimed at job training, as well as learning how to prevent gender-based violence and the spread of HIV.
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Overall the trip was a perfect encapsulation of Biden's time as first lady, promoting noble causes and being generally uncontroversial, but ultimately less interesting to American media outlets than a single decision of her husband's - which, granted, is perhaps the most consequential decision any American politician will make over the next few years. It also didn't help, in terms of eyeballs, that her Africa trip started the same day that her husband delivered his speech in Poland, and the day after he secretly took a 10-hour train ride into Ukraine to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
And yet, Biden showed up, as she always does (as her aides are often reminding reporters). She showed up in Africa the same way she shows up to promote coronavirus vaccines in red states, or to drive three hours and back to Navajo Nation to thank them for helping Joe Biden win in Arizona. By the end of her trip, she spent 44 hours in transit on her plane, Executive One Foxtrot, or in a bulletproof SUV, traveling more than 20,000 miles round trip in less than a week.
On that final day alone, it took Biden's massive 35-vehicle motorcade, which included an ambulance and backup cars in case there were breakdowns, three hours to get to the village from Kenya's capital city, Nairobi - some of it over dirt roads so rough that they could be traversed only in giant SUVs and Land Cruisers used for safaris. Past riverbed after riverbed that had completely dried up. Past the many men on the side of the road selling hay savanna. Past herds of cows wandering through busy settlements along the highway in search of water, so emaciated their ribs were showing. Past crowds of thousands of people who had stopped whatever they were doing to catch a glimpse. Past goats and donkeys that held up the motorcade, and ostriches that ran alongside it.
Asked what she found most memorable about this Africa trip, Biden told The Post: "This is one of the highlights, just getting out of the city and seeing people and how they're living and their challenges, how tough life is for a lot of people. But it makes me feel good about what our country does for other countries."
Biden's visit was meant to bring attention to a dire issue that aid workers fear will get lost in other crises. While her remark about her husband's 2024 plans may have upstaged things back in the States, there was evidence on the ground that Biden showing up had an impact. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which helps set up tents by Lositeti's church every other Sunday, offering physicals and malnutrition checks, reported that a whopping 474 people came in and received treatment that day - more than seven times their normal rate, and many of them children.
For the roughly 75 schoolchildren who had lined the road, singing and dancing, upon her arrival, or the boy who rode his bike alongside the slow-moving motorcade until they finally reached pavement, it seemed like the experience of Biden's visit was the kind they might remember for the rest of their lives. While everyone was waiting in cars to depart, several children came over and were delighted to use the safari vehicles like jungle gyms. One of the mothers with them, Gladys Motete, 32, was four months pregnant, with a 5-year-old son, and told this reporter that the drought was "very hard." And as the motorcade pulled away, she asked for food.
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