DAKAR, Senegal — President Obama arrived in Senegal to deliver messages about civil society and good governance, democracy and development. Senegal’s message to him was simpler: Welcome home.
The greeting was plastered on signs and T-shirts wherever Obama went Thursday during his first full day of a weeklong, three-country trip to Africa. Although Obama was born and largely raised in Hawaii, his father was born and is buried in Kenya.
Lampposts were covered with signs reading, “Welcome home, Mr. President.” The greeting, and Obama’s likeness, appeared everywhere. Crowds danced and waved.
Obama seemed to claim Senegal, too, shaking hands and posing for pictures, but also acknowledging the dark history of slavery the country shares with the United States.
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The president and his family visited a small slave house on Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar, the nation’s capital, where it is said men, women and children were traded, sorted, shackled and weighed before being sent across the Atlantic to the Americas.
The president stared out the “door of no return,” described as the exit for those boarding slave ships, while spending about half an hour in the two-story salmon-color house filled with dark holding cells.
“Obviously, for an African American — and an African-American president — to be able to visit this site, I think, gives me even greater motivation in terms of the defense of human rights around the world,” Obama said afterward.
“I think more than anything, what it reminds us of is that we have to remain vigilant when it comes to the defense of people’s human rights.”
Obama, whose Kansan mother is believed to have had at least one slave among her ancestors, was accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama, whose great-great-grandfather was freed from a South Carolina plantation; his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson; and older daughter Malia.
On Friday, the president will continue his push in South Africa, where he will spend three days, highlighted by a tour this weekend of the Robben Island prison that housed anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela for two decades as a political prisoner. White House officials have said Obama had hoped to visit Mandela, but likely will not because the 94-year-old anti-apartheid icon remains hospitalized with a serious lung infection.
During a news conference in Dakar, Obama called Mandela a “hero” whose writings in defiance of South Africa’s apartheid movement inspired Obama to a life of political activism when he was a 19-year-old Occidental College freshman three decades ago.
“I’ve had the privilege of meeting Madiba and speaking to him,” Obama said, using Mandela’s tribal name and referring to their 2005 meeting when Obama was a senator. “I think he’s a hero for the world.”
Obama also stressed the need for U.S. companies to invest everything and anything they can in the up-and-coming economies in Africa. “The reason I came to Africa is because Africa is rising,” Obama said. “And there’s a reason why a lot of other countries around the world are spending a lot of time here.”
To prove his point, he mentioned the competition from China. China overtook the U.S. as Africa’s largest trading partner years ago. It has helped pay for roads and bridges and bought 20 percent of Standard Bank of South Africa. Its president and vice president have visited more than 30 African countries in recent years, with President Xi Jinping putting Africa on the itinerary of his first trip after his ascension to leader.
Obama’s trip is his first multiday visit to sub-Saharan Africa in more than four years in office. His only other stop was in Ghana for about 20 hours on his way home from Europe.
Obama was joined on the trip by members of his economic team — U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman and officials from the Export-Import Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Earlier Thursday, Obama praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings the day before on same-sex marriages, but was not joined by Senegalese President Macky Sall in celebrating gay rights. Sall said Senegal is tolerant, but that the issue requires greater review.
“We are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality,” Sall said, according to news reports. “This does not mean we are homophobic.”