As the adage goes, behind every successful man, there is a strong woman. This is also true of the late Retired President Benjamin Mkapa.
His widow, former First Lady Anna Mkapa, made significant contributions to her husband’s success as the third president of Tanzania.
As Lirst Lady, Anna touched the lives of many in different ways.
“Mama Mkapa supported the President by changing the lives of women through the Equal Opportunities (for all) Trust Fund (EOTF). She is a woman who loves human development, especially for women, believing that when you improve a woman’s life, automatically the entire family will prosper,” says Ismail Suleiman, former secretary of the National Council of NGOs.
The EOTF is an organisation that focuses on the advancement and betterment of the lives of the poor, with a particular focus on women and children. The organisation has three main pillars – women’s economic empowerment, education and health care.
A young man then, Ismail - who worked closely with the First Lady in establishing EOTF - says she inspired him to start a children’s rights NGO: Watoto Salama.
He speaks very highly of the former First Lady, saying she encouraged young people to stick to their dreams, adding that she was always supportive of their endeavours.
Some even think she ‘overshadowed’ her husband in serving this nation, something they say did not seem to bother the president.
Instead, the former president is said to have been proud of her work, which augur well for his poverty eradication drive.
Those close to Mama Mkapa describe her as a very kind, caring, accommodative, hardworking woman who not only loved and cared for her family but also for everyone.
“Mama Anna was very close to her late husband and really cared about his work. The two were supportive of each other and she has played a major role in her husband’s success,” says Rose Rupia, the wife of Ambassador Paul Rupia, who once worked with the former president at the Foreign Affairs ministry.
Rose says as a working mother and wife, Mama Mkapa, whom she describes as ever-smiling, managed to balance the three roles well. She took good care of her husband and family, and was also very accommodative.
In his memoir ‘My Life, My Purpose, A Tanzanian President Remembers,’ the late Mkapa wrote that when he was the managing editor of The Nationalist, there were times when things were tough because the newspaper had little funds.
“This was the first time I was responsible for leading others and I strived to build a camaraderie amongst the journalists and editorial staff. We shared the drive to help our country and we worked long hours, seven days a week. It was tough… My personal car was the office car, with the journalists often joining me at home for dinner. Anna was very supportive indeed, offering hospitality to all who came to our home. By then, she was working for UNICEF and liked her job.”
Amne Salim, wife of former Secretary General of the former Organisation of African Unity, Salim Ahmed Salim, describes Mama Mkapa as a remarkable woman. “She supported him throughout his life as president. Politically and socially… She helped many women entrepreneurs. She is just like any other woman. She wasn’t proud of being the president’s wife. She was very humble.”
Mama Mkapa is said to have been very instrumental in inspiring and changing people’s lives. She helped women entrepreneurs through capacity building.
Through training, women entrepreneurs were able to add value to their products and export. They also acquired marketing skills, which helped them increase sales.
For her part, former UWT (CCM women’s wing) chairperson Sophia Simba - who is also former minister for Community Development, Gender and Children - speaks fondly about the former First Lady.
She says she was not surprised when Mama Mkapa formed EOTF 25 years ago after her husband came to power.
The former minister had worked with Mama Mkapa at the National Development Corporation (NDC) and knew her passion in helping others.
Mama Mkapa was the UWT chairperson at NDC branch and used to empower young women through income generating activities such as fashion shows, selling printed African fabric and making jewelry.
“She was so loving and committed and was close to everyone despite her husband holding a high position in the media. Colleagues liked her and used to call her Dada (sister) Anna. She is not very talkative but she is a leader,” Sophia says.
Sophia whose political journey started when she was at NDC says the former First Lady nurtured her political ambition.
“I always wanted to be like her. She inspired my passion for working with women through her love for women.”
Mama Mkapa’s loving and caring nature as well as her closeness to women became more evident after her husband became president.
“She became even closer to women - and I was not surprised when she started EOTF.”
Sophia continued to work closely with Mama Mkapa even when she was heading the Community Development, Gender and Children ministry.
She used to refer women who needed help to EOTF where Mama Mkapa was always ready to offer support.
According to Sophia, EOTF touched the lives of many women in Tanzania. “She used the opportunity as the First Lady to touch the lives of women. She influenced the president to focus on us by giving us more opportunities. She has always been a role model to us.”
She believes Mama Mkapa contributed in their struggle to have more women’s seats in parliament, adding she is a woman who has done a lot.
Esther Mkwizu, former board chairperson for the Tanzania Private Sector Foundation, who is among EOTF trustees, concurs.
She says the former first lady wanted equal opportunities for all as a way of reducing poverty. She helped women access loans and less advantaged youth obtain education, to empower them economically.
“She helped small women entrepreneurs market and add value to their products, which helped many of them export their products. She also used to support women from all over the country to attend the Saba-Saba Trade Fair (DITF). She really helped the late president in his poverty reduction mission.”
Esther says Mama Mkapa also supported the former president’s efforts to improve healthcare through the White Ribbon Alliance, which supported women in accessing maternal and reproductive health services. She also enabled many health facilities secure ambulances.
Having worked with Unicef before, Mama Mkapa was aware of the challenges hindering children from reaching their full potential.
“She paid tuition fees for many children, helped schools get books through Books for Africa, with the help of former US first lady Hillary Clinton. The books were distributed to various secondary schools. Just like her husband, she encouraged children to read,” says Esther.
Through EOTF, Mama Mkapa also established an orphanage in Kibaha District - the Kibaha Children’s Village Centre - that provides shelter to orphans and the homeless, and also provides education to both children at the centre and those from the neighbourhood.
“Mama Mkapa shows us that a woman can work alongside her husband’s vision and contribute to their leadership success. She stood firm as the First Lady, and continued with her role as a wife and mother while supporting her husband at the same time. She used to inspire women to do the same - and has not stopped supporting entrepreneurs to continue supporting their families economically,” she says.
In 2016, the former First Lady became the second African winner - after Nelson Mandela - of the ‘Order of the Smile Award’ for her exemplary contribution in advocating the rights and welfare of children.