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Michelle Obama leaves southern Africa charmed

US First Lady Michelle Obama flew home Sunday after a tour of southern Africa that paid tribute to Nelson Mandela and other liberation icons and enjoined a new generation to follow their lead.

Obama departed Botswana with her daughters, Malia and Sasha, two of their cousins, and her mother, Marian Robinson, who had joined her on every stop of the journey whether dancing and playing with children or spotting an elephant on safari.

The highlight of the trip was a brief audience with Mandela, an increasingly rare event as the 92-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner grows more frail with age.

Photographs of Obama smiling with Mandela and her children, reading from a new book of his quotations, were splashed across the South African media, and her image was never far from the front pages in either country during her trip.

The Sunday Times played a front-page photo of the Obamas in an open-air, four-wheel drive vehicle in South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve near the Botswana border.

They had spotted an elephant, but it dashed off after scenting a gathering place for the travelling press.

“Kristina, the press scared the elephant away,” Obama told her communications director, Kristina Schake.

Besides the elephant, most others who crossed Obama’s path seemed charmed by her presence.

“Michelle Obama brings out the best in southern Africa,” the Sunday Independent declared, over a photo of her kicking a soccer ball at Cape Town Stadium.

In Botswana she met President Ian Khama, but also painted a mural with AIDS orphans and then stunned villagers when she stopped at a roadside village restaurant for food.

“When we were told to expect a visitor, I never imagined that it was Michelle Obama. I am still in shock,” a shop assistant told AFP.

Throughout her travels, Obama drew parallels between the struggle for liberation in Africa and the American civil rights movement, and on a more personal level, between her own modest upbringing and the challenges facing young African women.

The tactic won over crowds and dignitaries, even in South Africa where the government has been critical or even defiant of American policy in countries from Libya to Haiti.

“We are welcoming you as a daughter of African heritage, and we can call you the queen of our world,” enthused Graca Machel, Mandela’s wife, as she introduced Obama to a crowd of 2,000 at an historic church in Johannesburg’s Soweto township.

The themes of Obama’s talks echoed messages that she regularly delivers to Americans, encouraging young people and women in particular to find success through hard work, whatever their background.

“Success is not about where you come from or how much money your family has,” she said in an oft-repeated line.

“Success is about how passionately you believe in your own potential and more importantly how hard you’re willing to work to achieve it.”

She also encouraged a passing of the torch from liberation leaders to the youth, bringing poor children to tour the University of Cape Town and play in the city’s World Cup stadium, always speaking of life’s possibilities.

“All of you, the young people of this continent, you are the heirs of that blood, sweat, sacrifice and love” of those who had fought for freedom and democracy,” Obama told young people in Soweto on Wednesday.

“So the question today is, what will you make of that inheritance?”

Obama included her daughters, aged 10 and 12, in every event — whether reading “The Cat in the Hat” to schoolchildren in a Johannesburg shantytown, dining in a neighbourhood deli in Cape Town, or playing football with Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“What do you feel? How are you feeling being here?” Tutu asked when they met on Thursday.

Gesturing to her daughters, Obama said: “It’s not about us now — it’s about them.”