By Joyce Jones
During a 2009 stopover in his ancestral Kenya, President Obama said, "I have the blood of Africa in me." He is the first American president able to make such a declaration, but that's not the only thing that will be different about his first major tour of the continent that begins today.
Unlike his immediate predecessors, his primary focus will not be human rights violations, AIDS or aid. This president will be taking care of business.
The weeklong trip with his family includes stops in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, each representing a different region of the continent and chosen for very strategic reasons. The goal is for the "U.S. to significantly increase our engagement in the years to come," said Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told BET.com that Obama is developing the next phase of the nation's relationship with Africa.
"The trip shows a new direction and attention, and instead of focusing on aid or hunger, which are important, he'll be talking about business, economic development and how we can get the Export-Import Bank involved in Africa with American and African businesses," Meeks said. "And he's bringing along a number of business folks, including African-Americans, to make these kinds of contacts."
The first stop is Senegal, where the president will highlight the French-speaking, Muslim-majority nation's growing democracy and economy. Senegal also can play an important role in helping the U.S. combat Islamist extremists in neighboring countries like Mali. Obama will meet with President Macky Sall and regional judicial leaders. He also will participate in an event focusing on food security.
First Lady Michelle Obama and Senegal's First Lady Marieme Faye Sall will have tea and visit the all-girls Martin Luther King Middle School.
South Africa has the continent's largest economy and serves as a shining example of democracy. In addition to a bilateral meeting with President Jacob Zuma, Obama will host a town hall at the University of Johannesburg in Soweto. The event is part of his Young African Leaders Initiative. He also will meet with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The first lady is scheduled to have tea with South Africa's First Lady Thobeka Madiba-Zuma. She also will visit with a group of high school students and participate in a Google+ Hangout with teenagers from across the nation and several American cities.
It is not yet known whether Obama will visit former South African president Nelson Mandela, whose failing health is a signal that he's approaching the end of his life. According to the White House, the president will pay tribute to Mandela's contributions to the world, but will defer to the elder stateman's family with regard to a visit.
Upon learning that Obama is coming to South Africa, Mandela opened his eyes and smiled, one of his daughters said.
The final stop, Tanzania, also is a partner with the U.S. on security matters and offers opportunities for significant American business investment. It's the first country visited by Chinese President Xi Jingping. While the U.S. struggles to get an economic foothold in Africa, China has become the continent's biggest trading partner.
"The continent is currently on the cusp of a transformative economic rise where it's important that the United states has a seat at the table in helping Africa reach its full potential and not cede any ground to other nations," said Rep. Karen Bass, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee's subcommittee on Africa.
In addition to meeting with President Jakaya Kikwete, Obama will attend a roundtable with business leaders from the U.S. and across Africa. According to Rhoades, it will be an opportunity for the president to "really focus on what we can do to increase trade and investment from the United States into Africa" and "advance our trade relationships."
"It shows we're not going to allow China and other countries to do the kind of work and investment in Africa that we can do better because we can help them grow their economies," said Meeks.
While in Tanzania, the first lady and former first lady Laura Bush will attend the African First Ladies Summit, Investing in Women Strengthening Africa, hosted by the George W. Bush Institute. The summit's focus will be the important role that first ladies play in promoting women's education, health and economic empowerment.
The trip to Africa also will give the administration opportunities to highlight initiatives like Feed the Future, an agriculture initiative, Bass added.
"The president will be laying out new initiatives around energy on the continent, again signaling a commitment from the U.S. to help Africa's economic rise," she said.