Melania Trump spent Thursday in southern Africa promoting the work of a US international development agency whose funding President Donald Trump has twice proposed slashing by nearly a third. Lawmakers essentially ignored those requests.
US First Lady Melania Trump sits next to a child reading a book during her visit to the Chipala Primary School in Lilongwe. (AFP)
Mrs Trump toured classrooms at Lilongwe's Chipala Primary School, which gets textbooks and other education assistance from the US Agency for International Development.
A batch of 1.4 million books donated on Thursday brought to nearly 10 million the total Malawi has received in recent years under USAID's national reading program, officials said. Malawi's education minister said the partnership had "significantly" improved student literacy.
But the Trump administration sought a roughly 30% cut in funding for the State Department and USAID in its first two budgets. Widespread bipartisan opposition in Congress averted the reductions.
But none of that was up for discussion as Mrs Trump visited with happy schoolchildren and their teachers in the Malawian capital.
"I wanted to be here to see the successful programmes that (the) United States is providing the children and thank you for everything you've done," the first lady said at a book donation ceremony in the school library.
She had just finished touring several outdoor classrooms. Chipala has more than 8,500 students but just 77 teachers, for a ratio of 111 students per instructor, according to the U.S. government. With just 22 classrooms, many students are forced to take their lessons outdoors, seated shoulder to shoulder in their uniforms on loose, red dirt.
US First Lady Melania Trump stands next to head teacher Maureen Masi during her visit to the Chipala Primary School in Lilongwe (AFP)
Mrs Trump watched several teachers conduct lessons for the equivalent of second- and third-graders.
"Meeting those children and understanding their different way of life is why I wanted to travel here," Mrs Trump told US Embassy employees at a gathering at the US ambassador's residence. Her own 12-year-old son attends a private school in Maryland.
"I was heartened to spend time with the students and was honored to donate school supplies and soccer balls," she said. The soccer balls, along with tote bags donated for the teachers, sported the logo of "Be Best," the child well-being initiative Mrs Trump launched this year.
The US first lady was joyously welcomed at the airport, with singing and dancing by a troupe of women and scores of schoolchildren waving African and Malawian flags. The high-pitched sounds of women vocalising were heard at the airport and at her subsequent appearances. In southern Africa, the vocalization is often done as a celebratory welcome by women.
But a few signs of protest were afoot, too, as President Trump is not widely seen as a friend of Africa.
Among scores of people lining the motorcade route between the school and the ambassador's residence, a few white people held signs.
US First Lady Melania Trump visits Chipala Primary School alongside head teacher Maureen Masi in Lilongwe. (AFP)
One said #MELANIATOO, with the "ME" in bold black. Another said "Welcome to Malawi. #NOTASHITHOLE!" — a reference to reports that the president used the vulgar term to describe African nations. A third sign raised the immigration policy the president once enforced that led to thousands of children being separated from their families after they illegally entered the US from Mexico. Many children still have not been reunited with their families.
Melania Trump waves to children as she visits Chipala Primary School in Lilongwe. (AFP)
After leaving the ambassador's residence, Mrs Trump went to the State House for tea with Gertrude Mutharika, her Malawian counterpart. Mrs Trump sat in a rooftop garden and watched performances by dance groups representing different regions of Malawi.
Mrs Trump opened her first extended international tour as first lady on Tuesday in the West African nation of Ghana. She arrived in Kenya late on Thursday for a series of events on Friday before she continues on to Egypt, her final stop