Midway through athree-country trip to Africa and shortly after
an emotional tour of his hero Nelson Mandela's Robben Island prison
cell, Barack Obama was greeted by another revered African leader,
Desmond Tutu, with the words: "Welcome home."
America's first black president - 'the son of a black man
from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas', as Obama describes
himself - had returned to Africa for his first extended trip as
the world's most powerful leader.
Despite disappointment that it took him so long, the
continent, for the most part, welcomed him and claimed him as
its own. People lined the streets in Dar es Salaam as Obama
began and ended his visit to Tanzania, and young audiences in
South Africa sprang to their feet to applaud his words.
"Your success is our success. Your failure, whether you like
it or not, is our failure," the anti-apartheid hero Tutu, Cape
Town's former Anglican archbishop, told Obama when they met at a
youth center run by Tutu's HIV Foundation.
"We are bound to you. You belong to us. And your victory is
The moment was a reminder of the hopes that Obama's election
in 2008 brought to Africa, which foresaw a future of stronger
ties with the United States.
Though Obama dashed those hopes in his first term by largely
skirting the continent, except for a brief visit to Ghana, he
has sought to make up for lost time on this trip with a new push
for more trade and a promise to provide electricity to millions.
Alongside the promises of business development on a
continent where self-determination struggles have mostly given
way to growing ambitions of higher living standards, his
personal connection with Africa seemed to resonate.
During his signature speech in Cape Town, Obama mentioned
his African father, something he rarely does, and made a
connection between his own start in political activism and the
anti-apartheid movement led by the ailing Mandela.
At a former slave house on Goree Island in Senegal, Obama,
who only rarely refers to his own race, said being an African
American increased his motivation to fight for human rights
around the world.
"He appears to have understood that people in Africa connect
with his personal story and has felt freer to tell it on African
soil than back home," said Richard Downie, deputy director of
the Africa Program at Washington's Center for Strategic and
During the tour of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, the
welcome was not quite as warm as it was in Ghana in 2009, when
huge crowds turned out to see the newly elected leader.
He faced some hostile protests in South Africa against U.S.
foreign policy, and even Tutu mentioned a prominent failure of
Obama's 4-1/2 year tenure: his inability to close the
controversial U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"The euphoria that engulfed this continent when President
Obama was elected is fading," said Nkepile Mabuse, the moderator
of a town-hall style meeting with young leaders at the
University of Johannesburg's Soweto campus.
FAVORITE SON AT LAST?
Valerie Jarrett, a friend and senior White House adviser,
said the president saw the long-awaited trip as very personal.
"The fact that his father abandoned him but his continent
did not, and all these years later to be welcomed as both the
president of the United States and the favorite son - it just
doesn't get much better," she said.
Obama's father, now dead, left his mother when the president
was a young boy. Obama's grandmother still lives in Kenya, but
he did not make a stop there, saying the timing was "not
optimal" while the new president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is facing
charges at the International Criminal Court.
But Obama said Kenya was close to his heart and renewed a
promise to return there while in office. Obama and his family
returned to Washington on Tuesday evening.
In the meantime, the continent will be watching to see how
he follows up on the pledges made during this visit.
If Mandela dies, Obama will almost certainly return for the
funeral. A picture of the two men together hangs in the family's
residence at the White House, next to a photograph of Mandela
with first lady Michelle Obama and the two Obama daughters,
taken when they went to South Africa two years ago.
Obama has invited African leaders for a summit next year in
Washington and promised to send high-level Cabinet secretaries
on trips to the continent.
"Only time will tell whether this trip signifies the start
of a more active chapter in U.S.-Africa relations," Downie said.
"It's easy enough to make nice speeches, but it's the day-to-day
policy substance that matters."