The First Lady of Two Separate Countries

The First Lady of Two Separate Countries


Graca Machel is the only woman to have been the first lady of two separate countries: Mozambique and South Africa.


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Graca Machel was born on 17 October 1945, to a family of peasants in Gaza Province, Portuguese East Africa (modern-day Mozambique). Her father, a Methodist minister who had died three weeks before she was born, left explicit instructions that her older siblings were to see her through high school. She was the youngest of six children in her family.

Graca was sent to a Methodist mission school at age 6 and later got a scholarship to high school in the capital, Maputo, where she was the only black African in a class full of white students. After that, a church-based scholarship made it possible for her to attend Lisbon University in Portugal in 1968, to major in languages.

Her political ideologies were deeply influenced by her experience during her school years. In Portugal, she mingled with students from other Portuguese colonies and developed her liberation politics. She was forced to leave Portugal and to abandon her education there.

When she returned to Mozambique in 1973, Graca joined Frelimo (Liberation Front of Mozambique). She underwent military training and learned how to take an assault rifle apart and put it back together. She was trained as a guerrilla fighter. During that time, she met the movement's charismatic leader, Samora Machel. During the revolutionary war, they became lovers and were married in August 1975, around two months after Mozambique gained independence.

Samora Machel was now the first President of Mozambique from the country's independence in 1975 and Graca Machel was now the First Lady of Mozambique. She became the first minister of culture and education since Mozambique gained independence. She was very successful working as a minister of culture and education. Within two years, she had boosted school attendance and lowered illiteracy. From 1975 to 1985, the number of students enrolled in primary and secondary schools rose from about 40 percent of all school-aged children to over 90 percent for males and 75 percent for females.

On the 19th of October, 1986, her husband Samora Machel died in a mysterious plane crash. Graca was devastated. She resigned from her post as Minister of Education and for the next five years, she wore only black.

She won the UN important Nansen medal for her work on children's rights in refugee camps in 1995. She declined to run for secretary-general of the UN in 1996. In the 1990's she was often seen in the company of Nelson Mandela, and their friendship deepened, so the couple got married on the 18th of July, 1998. She was now the only woman in history to be the first lady of two separate counties. But she remained devoted to Mozambique, and she gained international recognition for her achievements.


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