Equality, Human Rights The Themes Of Obama's Africa Tour

President Obama began his trip to Africa in Senegal. On Thursday, he met with Senegalese President Macky Sall and toured Goree Island. The UNESCO site was once a point for the Atlantic slave trade and today serves as a place of pilgrimage.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. In Senegal today, President Obama had a full schedule: a visit to the presidential palace, a news conference, meetings with Supreme Court justices from around Africa, and a tour of a slave port. Through it all, the president kept returning to themes of equality and human rights, as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from Dakar.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The Senegalese people take hospitality very seriously. They call it toranga(ph). So, when President Obama's motorcade rolled down the street this morning, the city poured out to welcome him.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

SHAPIRO: Thousands of people wore matching white robes called boubous(ph). Campaign-style posters said - Welcome home, Obama - plastered onto fences, trees, even statues. They show the U.S. president smiling next to Senegal's new president, Macky Sall. Sall was elected last year, and one reason for this visit is to throw America's weight behind growing African democracies like this one.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The reason I came to Africa is because Africa's rising. And it is in the United States' interests - not simply in Africa's interest - that the United States don't miss the opportunity to deepen and broaden the partnerships and potential here.

SHAPIRO: That was President Obama's closing comment in today's news conference. And if his voice sounded a little scolding, that's because none of the questions were about Africa. There were questions about this week's epic conclusion of the Supreme Court term.

OBAMA: It was a proud day, I think, for America.

SHAPIRO: When the justices handed down yesterday's ruling on same-sex marriage, Obama was already over the Atlantic Ocean. Today, he said his administration is now figuring out how to apply federal marriage laws in states that don't recognize gay marriage. It's his personal belief, he said, that a couple married in Massachusetts who moves someplace else is still married.

OBAMA: Under federal law you should be able to obtain the benefits of any lawfully married couple.

SHAPIRO: In Senegal, as in much of Africa, homosexuality is illegal. When President Obama suggested that Africans should reconsider their position, Senegalese President Sall said through a translator that the U.S. should respect cultural differences.

PRESIDENT MACKY SALL: (Through translator) It is just like the capital punishment. I mean, you know, in our country, we have abolished it for many years. In other countries, it is still the order of the day.

SHAPIRO: President Obama also reacted strongly another Supreme Court decision, striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. He called the law the culmination of years of struggle, blood, sweat, tears, and even death.

OBAMA: I might not be here as president had it not been for those who courageously helped to pass the Voting Rights Act.

SHAPIRO: These themes of equality and human rights came up again and again. President Obama reflected on South African icon Nelson Mandela, who's in failing health. Obama said his first experience with political activism was in the anti-apartheid movement.

OBAMA: I think at that time, I didn't necessarily imagine that Nelson Mandela might be released but I had read his writings and his speeches and I understood that this was somebody who believed in that basic principle I just talked about - treating people equally.

SHAPIRO: And later in the afternoon, the Obama family boarded a ferry to visit Goree Island, where these themes came up in a personal way.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

SHAPIRO: This is a port where boatloads of slaves were shipped to the Western world. At the House of the Slaves, the Obamas peeked into small rooms where men, women and children were held. Obama stood in the door of no return, looking out to the sea at the last place many people touched African soil. Afterwards, he described what he felt in that doorway.

OBAMA: And 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. Because, you know, I'm a firm believer that humanity is fundamentally good. But it's only good when good people stand up for what's right.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow morning, the president leaves Senegal for South Africa. He'd hoped that this visit would mark his first meeting as president with Nelson Mandela. Now, that's uncertain. With Mandela's health failing, President Obama said our thoughts and prayers are with the people of South Africa and with the Mandela family. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Dakar.

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