Laura Bush on Africa Trip, AIDS Epidemic

Published July 10, 2007

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This is a rush transcript from "On the Record ," July 9, 2007. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: But first, first lady Laura Bush. She just got back from an extremely important trip to Africa. The first lady began her five-day trip in Senegal. She then flew about seven hours across the African continent to Mozambique. Then she went on Zambia, and then back again across the African continent to Mali.

So why did the first lady go to Africa? Well, we went to the White House to find out. Just hours ago, first lady Laura Bush went "On the Record."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: Mrs. Bush, nice to see you.

LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: Thanks.

VAN SUSTEREN: I suppose if you and I were lucky enough to be back in school, what'd you do on your summer vacation, you'd say, went to Africa and helped.

BUSH: That's right. Exactly. I did have a wonderful trip to Africa. And Jenna went with me, our daughter, which made it especially fun for me. And we had four great countries that we got to visit, from the west coast, Senegal, where we started, all the way to the Indian Ocean just above South Africa to Mozambique, and then to Zambia, which is close to Mozambique, and then all the way back to the west coast again to Mali, our last stop before we flew home.

VAN SUSTEREN: This is your third trip to Africa?

BUSH: This is my third trip solo. I went once with the president to Africa since he's been president.

VAN SUSTEREN: And you blogged.

BUSH: I actually did a blog, which was really fun, the iVillage blog, and that was fun to do, to talk about what we did every day and to tell the stories of the people we met or what we saw. And this is the first time I've done a blog, and it was a lot of fun.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why Africa? This is obviously now your fourth trip, third solo. But why Africa?

BUSH: Well, because what the United States government is doing there through our taxpayers' money. I really want the American people to know what they're working on in Africa, the big president's emergency relief for AIDS plan, which the president announced in his 2003 State of the Union address, the president's malaria initiative, which was instituted last year, I guess, and then, of course, the African education initiative and other initiatives that we've worked on, the Millennium Challenge compact (INAUDIBLE) two countries who have gotten their Millennium Challenge grants approved.

And those are just all big development programs that the American people are supporting. And not just the American people through their government, although they certainly are through their taxpayer money, but also so many American groups, faith-based charities, religious congregations in the United States are directing their attention to both AIDS, because it's such a humanitarian crisis, and malaria, because it's a preventable, treatable disease.

We had malaria in the United States until about 60 years ago. And we eradicated it with a very systematic program of eradication, with treating mosquitoes with insecticide. And so we know it can be eradicated. And malaria is the leading cause of death in many African countries. We think AIDS is, but in fact, malaria is. And of course, people whose immune systems are already compromised because of HIV or AIDS are even that much more susceptible. And babies die of AIDS. Over a million-and-a-half people die of AIDS every year in Africa, mainly babies and children.

VAN SUSTEREN: And babies, I understand, from malaria. Every 30 seconds, you have a baby die.

BUSH: That's right. That's right. So it's a huge crisis of a disease that we know can be eradicated. And I know from visiting with Americans everywhere that Americans feel an obligation to do what we can when we see suffering around the world. And certainly, all the Americans I met when I was in Africa who were there either with their congregation or with World Vision or with Catholic Services or with a number of faith-based groups, as well as other NGOs, really are privileged to have the opportunity to work in Africa and save lives.

VAN SUSTEREN: So the first stop, Senegal.

BUSH: That's right. Senegal was the first stop. And there we saw both malaria programs, because Senegal — the number one leading — or the leading cause of death in Senegal is malaria. We visited with President Wade and Mrs. Wade, who we've been with on a number of occasions.

We also did events that had to do with Africa education initiative there, a textbook distribution program where a United States historically black college has worked with the government of Senegal to write and produce books for, textbooks for kindergarten through 8th grade. They're written in French. Senegal is a French-speaking nation. They're printed in Africa. The textbooks are Africa-centric. And so people in Senegal, Dakar University, worked with people in the United States to do these. And so we were there for the first group of these math textbooks that came into Senegal.

So that was exciting and fun, and they were thrilled in the schools there to have this collaboration with an American university to put these textbooks together for their students.

VAN SUSTEREN: So then the next stop was you went way across...

(CROSSTALK)

BUSH: ... way across the continent...

VAN SUSTEREN: ... which is not a short distance.

BUSH: No, it was a very, very long flight, over six-hour flight. We didn't get to Mozambique until after 1:00 in the morning. Mozambique is a beautiful country down on the Indian Ocean. Our hotel looked out over the Indian Ocean and a very, very beautiful sight. And once again, we visited the president there. The first lady joined me.

And it just happened that while we were in Mozambique that one day we were there, their Millennium Challenge compact was approved by the Millennium Challenge Corporation here in Washington, so just totally coincidence, but it was a thrill to be there because, of course, the president and the government of Mozambique were so happy to have their Millennium Challenge grant approved.

And what — this will be a big infusion of money. The Millennium Challenge Corporation works with — gives technical assistance to governments. They design their strategy of what they'll use this money for. And the goal is to be infrastructure, expensive things that they couldn't afford without this development money but that will have a huge impact on their economy and on their people in a very good way.

So one of the things they're using their money for is water treatment plants, safe water wells — I mean, all of these things that are very dependent on infrastructure. We take our infrastructure for granted, that we have safe water, that we can turn on the tap and have water, and of course, have it be safe drinking water that we can drink all over our country. Our highways, our airports — I mean, all of these things that are very, very expensive, that fortunately, we have in the United States but are very difficult for developing countries to afford, but also very difficult for them to develop their economy without this really strong infrastructure. So that was exciting.

VAN SUSTEREN: You raised the issue of water. Last September, you were at the Clinton Global Initiative...

BUSH: That's right.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... and this "Play Pump," which is one of the most innovative ideas for water — explain what the Play Pump is.

BUSH: The Play Pump is a children's merry-go-round. It was developed by someone in South Africa. It's attached to the well, with a storage tank, a holding tank for water next to it. And so they're mainly put in schoolyards. So when children come out to play, they have a piece of play equipment to play on, this merry-go-round, and while they play on it, it pumps water, clean water. That's part of the initiative to put the Play Pump in is the water is tested and that we know it's clean before the merry-go-round is put there.

The merry-go-rounds are very sturdy. They're built very well so that they will — can hold up under a lot of children playing on them. And then they provide safe drinking water.

VAN SUSTEREN: Brilliant.

BUSH: It's a wonderful idea that uses the energy of children at play to do it. But also, it means more girls can be in school because a lot of girls in Africa are kept home during the day because they're the ones who do the long walk to bring back water to their families. And so now girls can spend their time at school. They're thrilled to have this one piece of play equipment. In many villages, it's the only piece of play equipment for children at all.

And so we did go to the inauguration of the first Play Pump in Zambia, which was our next stop after Mozambique, and really fun to get to see this and see the children rush out at recess and play on this Play Pump.

VAN SUSTEREN: You mentioned the women, the girls. You went to some empowerment for women...

BUSH: Yes.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... activities. What's the story with the women where you were?

BUSH: Well, first, of course, wanting to make sure girls are educated because many girls in Africa are not allowed to go to school because they have to stay home and help. Many girls are the heads of household because they've lost their parents to AIDS.

VAN SUSTEREN: You mean by girls, at what age?

BUSH: Well, some as young as 12, or even younger than that.

VAN SUSTEREN: Are heads of household?

BUSH: Heads of households because their parents are not living. They're very vulnerable, these girls are. You know, they're vulnerable, obviously, because they're young. And we heard two very sad stories of girls who were heads of household who were both raped, one by a family member, a cousin who was supposedly going to help her, and another just out on the street because she just was vulnerable without any protection.

And that's a problem in Africa, the gender issues, where girls think they have to comply with the wishes of men, where there's a lot of early marriage, really early marriage, 12 and 13 and 14-year-old girls. All of these are issues that also are involved in HIV/AIDS because it's how girls are exposed to AIDS. It's also a very important issue with education because girls are kept out of school to help their families, rather than be educated, which then just perpetuates the cycle of girls not being educated and of poverty.

So these are all programs that the United States is working on that each of the governments that I visited are using as their very most important priorities. In fact, in Senegal — Senegal is now spending 40 percent of their budget on education. That's a huge percentage of their budget to be dedicated to education. They're in the middle of working on their Millennium Challenge compact. They're still in the technical stage of designing their strategy for what they'll do with their Millennium Challenge money.

VAN SUSTEREN: If you're an American and you go to one of these countries, and you — what's sort of like — you think, you know, Well, I'm really proud I'm American, we've done this. I mean, what's sort of the — you know, what have we done...

BUSH: Well, I feel really proud. I mean, I do when I'm there because I know what — that our American government is involved in many of these programs. They're not programs that people would see, necessarily, if they're going, for instance, to many of the fabulous animal parks to see the great animals of Africa or going to the magnificent Victoria Falls, for instance, in Zambia.

But they are programs that many, many Americans do see because they're going with their faith congregation or they're going with, say, Princeton in Africa or a college program that sends medical students or students to spend time in the summer working in a lot of these programs. And they do see that.

And they see the contribution that the PEPFAR, for instance, is making, the president's emergency plan for AIDS relief. They see people who literally thank us, thank me and thank the United States because they're on anti-retroviral. And they experienced what's called the Lazarus effect. They've been literally dying with AIDS and then able to go on anti-retrovirals that are paid for through PEPFAR and have come back to life, they think.

That happened where one man told us his story at a clinic, where PEPFAR's funds are paying for the anti-retrovirals. And he said his family was telling him good-bye, that they didn't think he would live. His cell count, his T-cell count was so low. And then he was able to go on anti-retrovirals, and now he's healthy and has a job and his family is smiling, he said.

VAN SUSTEREN: It makes a big difference to actually see this stuff than to read about it. I mean, it's so — you can read all — you can go on line and read about this, but seeing it with your own eyes...

BUSH: It really makes a huge difference. I mean, it's a huge privilege for me to be able to represent the people of the United States and to see what great effects these programs have had, both through our government and through our many, many charities that are American. They are charities from all over the world there, but there are many American charities. And I'm proud to get to see them, just to meet with a man, for instance — it wasn't even a program I visited when I was in Zambia — who is from El Paso, Texas, where my mother grew up, and he's doing building there, construction building with his faith, his Christian faith community, to try to build houses for people.

And just so many ways we reach out. And this isn't just in Africa, it's in many parts of the world. Our Peace Corps is in many countries, South American, Latin American countries, as well as Central European countries, some of the new democracies there.

And on the Europe trip that George and I just went on, I got to go to programs there that faith-based groups in Bulgaria are supporting with many of the orphans that are there. And it's — you know, it's really amazing. And not only do I see the good that we've done, I also see the way the American people are represented in these countries, where people realize and see the generosity and the goodness of the American people. And I'm proud of that.

VAN SUSTEREN: In terms of the malaria, the mosquito net, which is such a simple thing, yet it can do so much.

BUSH: It really can. And that's — if people want to know what they can do, they can go to the president's malaria initiative Web site, which is PMI.gov, or go to the Web site Malarianomore or Nothingbutnets, where you can find out how — if your Sunday school or your book club or your school sports team wanted to raise some money, they can pay for a mosquito net that would save a life in Africa.

These are insecticide-treated mosquito nets. Nearly all of the different charities and faith-based groups and NGOs that are on the ground in Africa, whatever their purpose, are also now using these nets to pass out to the people that they reach out to. We're using those groups because they're already on the ground, churches that are already on the ground, to pass out nets to their congregations to protect them from mosquito bites.

VAN SUSTEREN: And I guess we should emphasize that we're in the Green Room at the White House...

BUSH: That's right.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... and there's a painting over on the wall...

BUSH: A very famous by John Singer Sargent called "The Mosquito Net." It just shows that malaria and mosquito nets have been an important part of the history of our country, as well as other countries around the world that have eradicated malaria. And we know we can do it with a very, very concentrated and systematic use of both the nets, insecticides spraying, judicious spraying of insecticide in Africa, and then of course, also working to educate people in Africa in these malaria-prone countries of what they can do to make sure they don't have mosquitoes breeding in their villages or in their gardens, by making sure there's not standing water.

VAN SUSTEREN: We've talked about malaria, AIDS, women empowerment...

(CROSSTALK)

VAN SUSTEREN: ... get to education. And I wanted to bring up your 2nd-grade teacher.

BUSH: Oh, Meggie (ph), my...

VAN SUSTEREN: Poor Miss Meggie.

BUSH: My 2nd-grade teacher died this week of a heart attack. I had gotten to see her fairly recently. I kept up with her. She was the teacher that I loved the most, and I wanted to grow up and be just like her. And...

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, you became a teacher.

BUSH: So I knew when I was in 2nd grade what I wanted to do, and I went to college, became a teacher and a school librarian. And I would have never guessed it, but those years of teaching were a huge advantage for me now because I know what schools are like. I can act as an advocate for teachers all around our country. And I know how important education is.

VAN SUSTEREN: And inspired your daughters to teach.

BUSH: That's right. My daughter's a teacher, as well, and I'm so proud of that.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, thank you, Mrs. Bush. Thank you for letting us come to the White House.

BUSH: Thanks so much, Greta. Appreciate it a lot.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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