Harris finds footing and a jubilant audience, halfway around the world from Washington
ACCRA, Ghana — Vice President Kamala Harris looked off to her right, shaking her head, the Atlantic Ocean in the foreground.
She’d just finished a tour of the Cape Coast Castle, a colonial slave port where Africans from all over the continent were brought — and then raped, beaten and sold as chattel. Her voice caught as she began to speak.
She wiped tears from her face as she and the second gentleman Doug Emhoff walked the cobblestone grounds. “The horror of what happened here must always be remembered,” she declared, deviating from prepared remarks. “It cannot be denied. It must be taught.”
It was a rare unguarded moment for the usually stoic Harris. And one that showed the possibilities and opportunities that come with getting her outside of the D.C. settings. The first Black U.S. vice president, she also was the highest Biden administration official to visit the continent, and her visit generated profound excitement. Every street she rode down was filled with people, often holding Ghanaian and American flags, who waved and screamed and cheered, hoping to get a glance into her motorcade. Large posters of her face were posted all over Accra, many of them saying “Akwaaba.” Welcome.
“Excellency, be at home because everybody here is with you and part of you,” Justina Marigold Assan, the Cape Coast’s central regional minister, said at one event. Harris smiled and mouthed a silent “thank you.”
Administration officials have often remarked how foreign trips can provide Harris room to shine that, they feel, the D.C. chattering class misses when talking about and covering her. Harris earned rave reviews for her speech last month at the Munich Security Conference, where she proclaimed Russia had committed crimes against humanity. And her trip to Africa once more demonstrated the general relief she and her staff usually feel the further away they get from the political sniping that trails her at home.
Harris arrived Sunday in Ghana, the first of a three-nation, one-week trip across the continent, to talk about economic security and U.S.-Africa unity. She landed to the sound of drums and dancers wrapped in traditional Kente cloth and headbands.
At subsequent stops, she has been notably less guarded, relaxed and seemingly lighter on her feet. It was noticed by the locals, too.
“I’m so proud and so happy to see her in Africa. It was emotional that she made it here and that Ghana is her first African country. She clearly loves Africa and she loves Ghana,” said a young woman named LaToya, who did not want to give her last name out of fear because of anti-LGBTQ sentiments in the country. She had watched Harris’ speech at Black Star Square, a Ghanaian monument representing the nation’s freedom from colonialism. “Based on her smiles, she clearly enjoyed it here. When you come to a place like this, you can be yourself.”
The official goals of Harris’ trip were to enhance relations on the continent and ensure that China did not get a stronger foothold in the economies there. A senior aide said the vice president, as the first Black woman to occupy that post, was “uniquely positioned to highlight the culture and opportunities, most especially the dynamism of African youth.”
But unlike the diplomatic meetings and security conferences that marked her past travel abroad, the trip to Ghana also featured more direct interactions with the populace. The vice president made several stops during her visit to highlight the nation’s arts, including a woman-owned gallery and a community recording studio.
Ghanaian singer Amaarae met with Harris at Vibrate Space, an artists’ collective. She said the vice president pledged her team would follow up with her and keep using art and culture to demonstrate Ghana as a worthy investment.
“She is so chill. I feel like sometimes you can tell when people don’t care and don’t want to be even there. But she was genuinely like, ‘This is awesome. And I’m really excited to get to know more about the culture,’” Amaarae said.
But with the excitement, symbolism and hope also comes the pressure. In Harris, Ghanaians see someone at the table who looks like them. But that doesn’t mean that trust was baked into the equation. It could be heard and seen at every event — a deep breath from people who’d listened to broken promises from Americans for decades.
During her visit, Harris announced $1 billion in public-private investments to help increase economic opportunities for women. She also pledged $100 million in funding from the Biden administration for security and regional stability assistance.
But a separate $55 billion investment the White House promised to African leaders at a summit in December will require congressional approval. And experts say the window to making good on these promises could be closing soon, largely because of China’s expanding influence throughout the continent.
“Convincing people that, yes, the people in charge in the U.S. actually do see the opportunity — that’s the part that she can do. But then the element that is harder is to actually put your money where your mouth is,” said Amaka Anku, who heads the Africa practice at the Eurasia Group. “You have to convince your businesses to see those opportunities and to follow through.”
Harris said she was very aware of that skepticism.
“I am definitely putting a lot of pressure, if you will, on our approach to make sure that we are doing as much as we can as soon as we can to get this jump started,” Harris told reporters before she left Ghana for the next leg of her trip, Tanzania. “I do believe the window is definitely open now. Based on what we do now, the window will continue to be open.”