Michelle Obama, Laura Bush Attend African First Ladies Summit

First lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush shared the stage in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Tuesday, at an event for the First Ladies of Africa. NPR contributor Cokie Roberts moderated the event.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The wives of leaders from the African continent heard from an unlikely pair of speakers this week: the current first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, and her predecessor, Laura Bush. The two appeared at the African First Ladies Summit in Tanzania. The gathering was organized by the George W. Bush Institute. It is launching several programs to combat breast and cervical cancer in Africa, following on the former president's work on HIV-AIDS there.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now moderating their discussion was NPR contributor Cokie Roberts.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Americans have always been a little bit wary about first ladies. They're not elected and they can't be fired.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: And they have a whole lot of power.

GREENE: And the theme of the conversation was how to harness that power. Laura Bush described giving a radio address soon after the September 11th attacks advocating for the women of Afghanistan.

LAURA BUSH: Right after that, I was in a department store with my daughter, Jenna, and the women who sold cosmetics at the department store said thank you so much, Ms. Bush. Thank you for speaking for the women in Afghanistan. And that was the first time it really occurred to me that people really did hear me. And so I, you know, want to encourage every first lady to speak out and speak up and let people know, because people are watching and they are listening. And you can be so constructive for your country if you speak up about issues that you think are important.

MONTAGNE: It was noted that the two women sharing the stage are from opposing political backgrounds, especially given the setting - a continent where democratic transition of power is still something of a novelty. Mrs. Obama spoke about the help the Bushes provided when the Obamas moved into the White House.

MICHELLE OBAMA: I just wanted to take a moment to commend Mrs. Bush because she and her staff helped my team with that transition. And that's a powerful lesson for other leaders.

GREENE: And they also commiserated about some of the challenges of their role.

OBAMA: While people are sort of sorting through our shoes and our hair, you know...

BUSH: Whether we have bangs.

OBAMA: ...whether we have bangs - but we take our bangs and we stand in front of important things that the world needs to see. And eventually, people stop looking at the bangs and they start looking at what we're standing in front of.

GREENE: Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, standing with fellow first ladies Monday in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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