Graça Machel: The Only First Lady of Two Countries

gmShe is the only known woman to have been the first lady of two countries. Graça Machel (68) is, however, best known for her dedication to the plight of refugee children around the world. She gained wide respect as an authority on the subject with her 1996 report for UNICEF – the United Nation’s Children’s Rights and Emergency Relief Organisation – on the impact of armed conflict on minors.

Mrs Machel is currently engaged in promoting pan-African unity. Speaking recently in Johannesburg, she concluded that for Africa to live, “the nation state must die.” In her lecture, Mrs Machel argued that a new generation of leaders is called for “to steer the people of the continent beyond the thinking and views of its component parts to a broader one of unity without losing Africa’s great diversity.”

Mrs Machel emphasises that a variant of her lecture’s title – that the tribe must die for the nation to live – does not hold true. “In Africa, it’s only Tanzania that has a semblance of cohesion despite its diversity. Africa is much more than French, Portuguese, or English speaking countries. There must be value added in the drive for an African identity.”

Graça Machel was born in the Gaza Province of Portuguese East Africa – today’s Mozambique – and attended a series of Methodist mission schools that prepped her for further studies at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. Fully fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, English, German and her native Shangaan language, Graça Machel returned home in 1973 and promptly joined the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo). She also took a job as a teacher.

“After her husband’s death, Mrs Machel focused on her humanitarian work for children and refugees. In 1995 she received the prestigious United Nations’ Nansen Medal in recognition for her outstanding service to the cause of displaced persons.”

Barely two years later, Graça Machel had become the country’s first post-independence minister for education and culture. That same year, 1975, she married Samora Machel, the socialist revolutionary who headed Frelimo’s struggle for independence against the Portuguese and became the country’s first president. In 1986, President Machel died tragically in a plane crash while en route to South Africa.

After her husband’s death, Mrs Machel focused on her humanitarian work for children and refugees. In 1995 she received the prestigious United Nations’ Nansen Medal in recognition for her outstanding service to the cause of displaced persons.

Through her work, Mrs Machel met and got acquainted with South African president Nelson Mandela whom she married on his 80th birthday on July 18, 1998. That same year, Mrs Machel (who kept her first husband’s surname) was awarded the North-South Prize by the Council of Europe for her efforts at promoting human rights.

Currently, Mrs Machel serves as chairperson of the advisory board of the Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa (AWEPA), an entity aimed at furthering parliamentary democracy in Africa. Mrs Machel is also president of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.


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