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Graça Machel: so much more than a first lady

Robert McCrum The Observer, Saturday 29 June 2013 13.29 EDT

As the world's thoughts turn towards Nelson Mandela, it is becoming clear that his wife too will take her place in history as a huge figure in the fight against poverty, illiteracy and injustice.

Shakespeare, in one of Nelson Mandela's favourite lines, now strangely apposite, says that "the valiant never taste of death but once". As the world waits for Mandela to make his final rendezvous with history, one woman – his third wife – who has been at his bedside throughout his illness, and now keeps vigil there, is almost perfectly cast for her role. Graça Machel (pronounced Mah-shell) has, after all, been here before.

In 1986, Machel was tragically widowed when the Russian Tupolev jet carrying her husband, Samora Machel, the first president of independent Mozambique, ploughed into a remote hillside just inside the South African border. The apartheid regime denied involvement, but suspicions of a political assassination linger. As the nation rallied in grief, Graça Machel, a young mother, was dubbed Mozambique's Jackie Kennedy. It's not an implausible comparison. She has the same easy, cosmopolitan self-confidence, natural presence, and command of languages (English, Portuguese and French).

She has many weighty qualifications, too, including a law degree – combined with an impressive slate of global achievements in women's rights and humanitarian issues. "I'm not Samora's wife," she's been known to snap. "I'm me." In public, she's beloved for her ready smiles and self-deprecating humour, mixed with a steely determination. As Mozambique's first lady, she was widely credited with being a moderating influence over her firebrand Marxist husband. And if Samora Machel's story is now part of African liberation folklore, and if Nelson Mandela is a figure for the ages, Graça Machel is close to the equal of her two husbands. Shy of publicity, she once said: "It's not two leaders who fell in love with me, but two real people. I feel privileged that I have shared my life with two such exceptional men."

She was born Graça Simbine on 17 October 1945 on the coast of Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony. Her family were peasants. Her father, who was semi-literate, provided for the family by oscillating between the South African mines and farming, and would become a Methodist minister. When he died, weeks before Graça was born, family legend says that he made his wife promise that their unborn child would have proper schooling. Machel's mother kept her word. "We were a poor family," Machel has said, "but I had the best education."


Falling in Love

by Diana Buckhantz

I have fallen in love with two men on this trip to Congo. They are two men from very different backgrounds and with different skills but who share the same unshakeable passion and vision for Congo’s women. They are each extraordinary in their own right, and I am in awe of their humility, strength, and perseverance. Dr. Denis Mukwege is a Congolese gynecologist who founded Panzi Hospital in 1999 in Bukavu, DRC. Dr. Mukwege has become the world’s leading expert in repairing fistula — damage done to the internal organs of women during gang rape. At Panzi, at least 1200 women a year are treated for rape, many needing multiple surgeries. His patients arrive brutalized, bleeding, often leaking urine and fecal matter.

No one is turned away and many women live at Panzi for years waiting to complete their surgeries. I met a very young woman today who had been there for two years. Women can also keep their children with them, and the hospital provides child care and schooling for the older children. Dr. Mukwege’s dream (which is on the road to completion) is to open Maison Dorcas, a Women’s Empowerment Center where approximately 200 women will live while learning skills and business entrepreneurial techniques. The classes will start even now as the building reaches completion. And while the Center is mainly for these survivors, Dr. Mukwege’s goal is to include women from the community around Panzi so that the women will become integrated into the community and not be stigmatized as a result of living there.

Dr. Mukwege has dedicated his life not only to saving women’s lives but to becoming their strongest advocate as well. In fact, after he made an impassioned speech at the U.N. which blamed “impunity” for mass rape in Congo and criticizing the international community and the Congolese government for their shameful inaction, an assassination attempt was made on his life last October. He and his family barely escaped and were forced to live in exile for several months. It was a devastating time for everyone and especially the women in Congo, but he is back now albeit at great risk to himself, continuing to operate and advocate.


Amani Matabaro is physically the opposite of Dr. Mukwege. While also handsome, he is a diminutive man who can be easily overlooked in a crowd, but like Dr. Mukwege, his voice is heard loud and clear on gender equity issues and women’s empowerment. While Amani works and consults with various NGOs and individuals to support his wife and six children, his real passion is AFBEK (a French acronym that translates to Action for the Welfare of Women and Children), an organization he started to empower women and children by providing women with entrepreneurial trainings and children with the fees to be able to go to school.

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