WINDHOEK, Namibia (AP) — Jill Biden’s visit to Namibia was a big hit with scores of giddy children who crowded around her Thursday as she handed out boxes of White House M&Ms after visiting an organization that gets U.S. support for programs that teach young adults about HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence.
“Candy from the White House,” Biden announced as she stepped out of her black SUV and approached the children, who had been waiting along the roadside.
Biden quickly ran out of candy, and then another boy stepped forward. As he sadly turned away, Biden called out “Wait!,” and gave him the presidential tote bag that had contained the candy.
Jill Biden had spent nearly an hour at Hope Initiatives Southern Africa, where she listened to moving testimonials from participants in the nongovernmental organization’s programs. Brave Illena, a 26-year-old mother, told Biden that the DREAMS program gave her the tools she needed to start her own cleaning business with 14 employees. She graduated from the program last year.
Another young woman, Adelaide Tembi Gowases, told the first lady that the program “has given me a voice.”
Biden moved both women closer to the news media to share their testimonials and stood holding their hands.
“You’re such a great role model,” she told Gowases, 22.
A portion of the visit was moved inside when a torrential rain, preceded by booming thunderclaps, began to fall. Afterward, journalists who had been sent back to their vehicles were instructed by an aide to “get out of the vans, get out of the vans” and run up a hill to where the children had gathered alongside the road.
The first lady was then driven up the hill to the children. She and her granddaughter Naomi immediately started handing out red, white and blue M&Ms in boxes stamped with the presidential seal. Delighted with the sweets, the children quickly surrounded their American visitor.
“Hold on, hold on. Wait your turn,” security officials told them. “Wait your turn.”
The children live in Kilimanjaro, an informal settlement of makeshift homes built of metal on the outskirts of Katutura, a neighborhood near Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.
Hope Initiatives Southern Africa works to end poverty and hunger in marginalized communities in the region. Some of its programs, including ones to prevent new HIV infections and gender-based violence, receive funding through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
The program, widely referred to by its acronym, PEPFAR, was founded in 2003 by President George W. Bush and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
The U.S. has invested over $100 billion in the global response to HIV/AIDS through PEPFAR, the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease. More than 25 million lives have been saved worldwide, according to the U.S. State Department.
Biden praised PEPFAR while at Hope Initiatives.
“Look how many lives it has saved and how many lives it will continue to save,” she said. “It’s an amazing program.”
She also heard from Peter Mayavero and Clopas Lazarus, who participate in Agents of Change, which teaches them about gender-based violence. Lazarus told Biden that he talks to his peers about such violence when they play soccer.
“So you lure them in with soccer, and then you teach them” she said.
Patricia Sola and John Mafukidze, the married co-founders of Hope Initiatives, said afterward that they were honored by Biden’s visit. Sola said she depends on small-dollar grants or short-term funding for programming, and is interested in securing more long-term funding.
Sola called it “the biggest honor in my 58 years to have Biden come and listen.”
She said the visit gives her work a level of visibility the couple could never achieve on their own.
Before visiting Hope Initiatives, Biden said at a luncheon in her honor that the futures of the U.S. and Africa are “intertwined” and that African voices are critical to solving pressing world problems.
Biden said that when she and President Biden were discussing her five-day visit to the continent, he told her how much Namibia’s struggle against apartheid inspired him to speak out when he was a U.S. senator. Namibia was once under the rule of South Africa, where the government operated under a now-abolished system of white minority rule.
“He understood then, as he does now, that our futures are intertwined,” the first lady told the audience of about 200 Namibian government and other leaders at the State House.
Namibian first lady Monica Geingos told Biden that her visit was a “powerful” sign of friendship for a country that “needs work.” Geingos added that “one of the reasons Namibia doesn’t make international headlines is because it’s a functioning democracy with the fundamentals in place.”
Biden said she decided to visit Namibia — her first time there — after getting to know Geingos when she accompanied her husband, President Hage Geingob, to Washington for a U.S. summit with leaders from Africa.
“You know, sometimes you meet someone and you instantly know that you will be friends,” Biden said, and described how their “conversation and laughter came so easily.”