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Graca Machel is the only woman to have been first lady of two separate countries

Goran Blazeski

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.

Madame Graca Machel at the Sports for Peace Gala 2010 in Johannesburg

Madame Graca Machel at the Sports for Peace Gala 2010 in Johannesburg

Her political ideologies were deeply influenced by her experience during her school years. As quoted by The Guardian she said: “Why is it that I’m made to feel strange in my own country? They’re the foreigners, not me. Something is wrong here.” 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. Basically, 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.

Graca and Samora Machel hosting Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, Maputo, 1979. Photo Credit

Graca and Samora Machel hosting Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, Maputo, 1979. Photo Credit

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 her post as Minister of Education and for the next five years, she wore only black.

Graca Machel was a natural born leader, gifted with great imagination, and she didn’t stop her mission when her husband died. She started from the beginning in 1991, launching a foundation to address poverty.

Graca Machel at SOAS in 2015. Photo Credit

Graca Machel at SOAS in 2015. Photo Credit

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 still remained devoted to Mozambique, and she gained international recognition for her achievements.

Her many awards include the Laureate of Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger from the Hunger Project in 1992. She has received the Inter Press Service’s (IPS) International Achievement Award for her work on behalf of children internationally, the Africare Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award, and the North-South Prize of the Council of Europe, among others.