It was a Saturday of learning for U.S. first lady Jill Biden in Kenya.
She praised young adults for learning about safe sex and dating practices, attended a meeting of women who created their own banking system and chatted with local entrepreneurs who have been helped by a program that connects tractor owners and farmers.
All three programs aim to help women and young people take control of their lives so they can support themselves and their families. Biden has been highlighting U.S.-backed efforts to empower these groups during a five-day, two-country visit to Africa this week.
“These are issues that really all people need to talk about and yet, somehow, they don't, and the consequences of not talking about it are so dire,” Biden told dozens of young people after talking with them about safe sex, condom use and birth control at the Shujaaz Konnect Festival, a local youth empowerment event. “So, I love seeing the young people here."
At a tent where young people were having networking-like conversations, they showed her a questionnaire they use to spur discussion. The first question: "What would you say if I told you I had a condom in my pocket right now?”
Biden laughed. “And this is the first time they're meeting?” she asked.
A Shujaaz representative said such blunt propositions help teenagers and young adults overcome shyness, saying that it's sometimes easier to ask strangers these types of questions.
“I’m surprised you don’t start with like, ‘What’s your biggest achievement?’ rather than, ‘I have a condom in my pocket,’” the first lady said.
The festival is a collaboration with MTV Staying Alive Foundation, which works with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to help teach young Kenyans how to avoid becoming infected with HIV, which causes AIDS.
Biden, who is on the fourth day of her five-day trip to Namibia and Kenya, has spent the week promoting HIV/AIDS education programs and initiatives that teach woman and young people skills they need to find jobs or start businesses.
Her visit is part of a commitment by President Joe Biden to deepen U.S. engagement with the nations of Africa, many of which feel overlooked by the United States. Part of that effort is also about countering China's influence on the continent that Beijing has achieved through increased trade and spending on roads and other public works projects.
Biden was scheduled to cap her visit by traveling Sunday to an area near Kenya's border with Tanzania to raise awareness about a severe drought that is endangering lives and livelihoods.
Earlier Saturday, the first lady went to a government community center in Kibera, an informal settlement in Nairobi, to attend a meeting of women small-business owners who participate in the Joyful Women program. Founded in 2009 by Rachel Ruto, Kenya's first lady, the program promotes women's economic empowerment and financial inclusion.
Participants create “table banking” groups, pooling their resources so they can lend each other money they cannot get from traditional banks. Some of the women have used the loans to start businesses. One woman said she opened a day care center.
“It's pretty ingenious that women found a way to support other women, to lift them up and to increase economic prosperity for families, right?” said Biden, who visited a different empowerment program on a 2010 stop at Kibera.
“I've always taught my own daughter and my granddaughter the importance of being financially independent and, so now, here, you've found a way to do your own banking system, which is pretty incredible,” Biden said. Her granddaughter, Naomi, 29, sat nearby.
Before taking her seat at the table, Biden was wrapped from the waist down in an apron-like cloth known as a leso or kanga that women wear in the home.
At a separate event, Biden chatted with local entrepreneurs, small farmers and others who have been helped by Hello Tractor, which connects tractor owners and farmers who need the machinery.
The first lady also laid a wreath at the August 7th Memorial Park to honor those who were killed the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. More than 200 people were killed, including 12 Americans. More than 4,500 people were wounded.