Laura Bush Surveys Suffering in Africa

First Lady Laura Bush has returned from visits to Botswana, South Africa, Tanzania and Rwanda in southern Africa. She flew there after last week's G8 summit, where world leaders pledged aid to help developing nations. Bush says she wanted to convey the level of suffering to the world.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

First lady Laura Bush has just returned home from Africa. She flew there after leaving the G8 Summit in Scotland a week ago where her husband and the other G8 leaders pledged more money and help for developing nations. Mrs. Bush says she wanted to see the faces of people in need and to convey the level of suffering to the world. She called the trip `life-changing.' NPR's David Green traveled with her.

DAVID GREEN reporting:

Laura Bush's first stop in Africa was a safari lodge on the South Africa-Botswana border. It was to be an exotic weekend alone for her and her twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara. On the other hand, the first lady explained, they were not totally alone.

Mrs. LAURA BUSH: We saw elephants and rhino and hippopotamus and lion and zebra and...

GREEN: After her weekend as a wildlife tourist, the first lady set off on a journey to some of Africa's most troubled spots. It began in a district of Cape Town, South Africa, called Hialeecha(ph). People live in shacks with dilapidated tin roofs. Tiny homes pile up against each other and most don't have running water.

At a clinic amid all this poverty, excitement over Mrs. Bush's visit was running high. Here, HIV-positive mothers teach other women how to avoid passing the virus to their children.

Mrs. BUSH: Thanks, everybody. Thank you all and lots of love to everyone. And thank you so much for coming. Really appreciate it.

(Soundbite of flashbulbs; people singing in foreign language)

Ms. BABOWA EMBONO: My baby is two years now, five months, and she's negative. She's out of the danger.

GREEN: Babowa Embono(ph) is one of the moms who mentors in the program. It receives funding from the United States, but Embono said it never seems like enough.

Ms. EMBONO: One thing for me I'd like her to do for us, to support the mothers program financially so that we can go over to the places where people need us mostly because with the hope and the spirit reach of God and the experience reach of God from the mothers program, we'll be able to help other people around the world.

GREEN: When it comes to help from the United States, some critics complain that President Bush complicates the fight against AIDS. They say he focuses American dollars on programs that only mention condoms while stressing abstinence as a more reliable way to stop spreading the virus. It's a policy debate Mrs. Bush didn't hesitate to join.

Mrs. BUSH: A,B,C stands for abstinence, be faithful and correct and consistent use of condoms. When women are respected and have legal protection in their community, they have more control over their own sexual lives. They have more options to adhere to the A,B,C model and more power to convince their partners to adhere to it, too.

The first lady then flew to Tanzania and the spice island of Zanzibar. She flew west past the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro towering through the clouds, and she landed in Rwanda. The capital, Kilgali, still has its red dirt streets. Police officers holding guns dangle their feet off the backs of Jeeps, eerily recalling the machete-toting killers who rode in similar vehicles during the tribal genocide in 1994.

(Soundbite of people singing in foreign language, drum beating, clapping)

GREEN: Mrs. Bush came to a church-run AIDS center to hear the sad stories of young, orphaned children raising their even younger siblings. But part of the scene was almost festive.

(Soundbite of people speaking in foreign language, drum beating)

Unidentified Man: Here we have some mushrooms...

GREEN: She toured a genocide museum that hides none of the horrors of 1994 when perhaps a million ethnic Tutsis and targeted Hutus were slaughtered. Pictures of children who were killed are on display, some with their last words. And thousands of victims are buried outside the museum.

Mrs. BUSH: Some would call the tragedy in Rwanda unspeakable. But that is precisely the problem. Too few people around the world spoke out about what was happening here. Too few people recognized the scale of suffering.

GREEN: And too few countries follow through on promises to help this continent, Mrs. Bush told reporters on her flight home. She said she wants to keep the focus on Africa and wants G8 nations to keep their promise of more help. In a sign of how tough her effort may be, the first lady's tour of Africa received little media attention back home. David Green, NPR News.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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