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Up close with President Obama

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Up close with President Obama

When I received the email instructing me to apply for an account with the White House Travel Office with regards to President Obama’s historic trip to Africa, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. Eventually it became clear that my company, Africa.com, had been invited to join the ranks of CNN, CBS, NBC, Fox News, The New York Times, and the Washington Post as official members of the White House Travelling Press Corps.  I was filled with pride and excitement.

While the invitation was a big honour, it also came with a hefty price tag, in terms of dollars and staff resources. However, I recognised that travelling with President Obama to Africa was a unique opportunity.  We had a chance to cover this historic trip as insiders, through a uniquely African lens. We owed it to our audience and to ourselves to accept this invitation, and the challenge.

The first set of decisions revolved around what type of coverage we would provide.  We recruited a very talented photographer, Arnold Lewis, to be a part of our two-person team to travel with the White House. I would do the writing, and he would do the visuals. Before long, my very ambitious editorial team convinced us that we could also learn how to shoot professional video, and do “TV news style” reporting, that we would send to them from the road, and they would produce with graphics, title slides, and supplement with additional images and video made available by the White House.  The advent of digital technology meant that with a good camera, a laptop and a fast internet connection, we could produce something in line with what the “big boys” on the trip were producing.  

Soon our office began to refer to President Obama and Mrs Obama as the White House staff do: POTUS and FLOTUS, which stands for President of the United States and First Lady of the United States.  We were on what were almost daily briefing calls with the White House, and quite significantly, our email inboxes were taken over with dozens of updates on what the President was doing at every moment in the day. We were official members of the White House Press Corps – it seems we knew when POTUS sneezed. 

On the long-awaited departure day, we arrived at the storied Andrews Air Force Base, 30 minutes outside of Washington DC, which is the government airport where POTUS boards Air Force One, the presidential jet. Inside the passenger terminal, we found about 30 people waiting for the press charter flight. In addition, there were another 40 or so members of government there to support the press, including people from customs who would see that we were whisked in and out of each country without issue given the millions of dollars of broadcasting equipment we carried. There is a lot of laughter and camaraderie that comes from many intense days travelling the world together, incurred over a long period. Everyone seemed to know everyone, and it felt like we were joining a fraternity with a long history. 

The sense of camaraderie extended to the flight crew, as we boarded the 767 owned by Delta Airlines. This crowd knows each other well, they travel the world together, and it shows. Of course, the requisite safety announcements were made, but there was no sense of policing about safety belts or turning your phones off like one would find on a commercial flight. The flight crew had decorated the inside, in honour of the occasion, with African fabrics on some of the dividers between the sections of the plane, and they had hung a map of Africa in one strategic area.

The atmosphere of a “party bus” continued after take-off, with groups congregated in the aisles for informal chats. This highly informed lot challenged one another on policy issues and questioned such matters as how the White House should, or should not, modify its travel plans as Nelson Mandela lay in critical condition in a South African hospital. The seasoned crowd knew better than to eat too much of the food offered or to stay awake watching movies. Most went to sleep within the first hour of the flight, as they knew that sleep would be in short supply over the next few days.

Thus began the trip of a lifetime, as a member of the White House Press Corps.

After the overnight flight to Dakar, we were greeted by personnel from the US Embassy in Senegal, who escorted us in buses to our hotel, and gave us a warm welcome. While Senegal is familiar stomping ground for Africa.com, for many on the plane, it was just another stop, and they were just starting their background research on the latest city in their non-stop global jetsetting.

When asked by a network news crew member what she should do with her one free afternoon in Senegal, the reply the Embassy staffer provided was disappointing to me. The staffer suggested that she visit a nearby beach, where the surfing is fantastic.

As the head of Africa.com, my mission is for people to understand Africa the way one would understand any other part of the world. Every informed person knows that when in Senegal, one must visit Goree Island, designated by the United Nations as a World Heritage site. Goree Island was the largest slave trading centre on the African Coast, and a site of much significance for its “Door of No Return” through which slaves were sent to the new world. Suggesting that someone visit Senegal and not see Goree Island is a bit like going to Auschwitz, and not paying tribute to the Holocaust. This perspective underscored for me why it is important for news to be covered by diverse media perspectives, and why in particular, POTUS’s trip to Africa should be reported through the eyes of Africa.com.

After checking in at the hotel, we went to the Press Filing Centre, which is a temporary command centre for the media. There were long tables set up with chairs and power strips to plug in all of our computer equipment. A large-screen TV with CNN running in the background was set up in front. Whenever a story came on about the president, everyone would stop and watch to see how CNN was covering the story.

We all worked for a good hour or so, and then, a group of people went to Goree Island who were either a) doing advance work for POTUS’ visit the next day or b) curious to learn about this important historical site.

Arnold Lewis and I went on the Goree Island visit. We hired a local guide who walked us around the small island. I had visited the slave castles in Ghana before, which was a highly emotional experience. While Goree represents the same set of circumstances, it is an inhabited island, where about 1,000 Senegalese live and work today. There are numerous markets where artisans sell their goods, and the usual tourist hustle of “come see my shop.” All of this life on the island diluted, for me, the gravitas of
what occurred there. After touring an art studio, visiting a market shop with lovely dresses, and being shown handmade jewellry, we finally arrived at the “Door of No Return”.

We spent a good half-hour touring the quarters in which slaves were held, peering out the door, and wondering what it must have felt like to be pushed through that opening, to never see the land of your birth again, separated from friends and family, to endure the Middle Passage in conditions not suited for an animal, and if you were lucky, to arrive in a new land where you would be subjected to slavery for the balance of your life. Needless to say, the emotions ran deep.

When we returned to the hotel, we were invited to a brief gathering with the White House Press Secretary on POTUS’s agenda for the trip, the foundation of which had been announced in 2012 in a White House policy document entitled “US Strategy
Toward Sub-Saharan Africa”. In that White Paper, POTUS laid out four pillars of
his strategy: a) strengthen democratic
institutions; b) spur economic growth, trade and investment; c) advance peace and
security; and d)
promote opportunity
and development.

I interpreted POTUS’s choice to visit Senegal as a means of showing the American people that Africa has some strong democracies practising good governance.  The Senegal portion of POTUS’s trip illustrated this point by his first meeting with a head of state who was elected in a fair and democratic election. POTUS’s speech in Dakar focused on those elements of Senegal’s democracy that make it a beacon for other African countries: free and fair elections, repeated peaceful transfers of power, a strong press, and numerous political parties. At one light-hearted moment in his remarks, POTUS referred to Senegal’s dozens of political parties, and President Sall interrupted him to point out that Senegal actually has hundreds of political parties. The ever-so-suave POTUS responded by saying “I don’t know how you do it.” He grinned and remarked, “And I have to say, back in Washington, we have our hands full with just two parties,” which of course, drew much laughter.

The next leg of the trip was in South Africa. In recognition of the growing importance of Africans in the youth demographic, POTUS and FLOTUS designated significant time in their agendas to meet with young people. The most significant of POTUS’s activities with young people was a town hall meeting with young leaders held at the University of Johannesburg in Soweto. The event also included young people connected by video conference from Nigeria and Kenya. In front of more than 600 young people, President Obama announced the launch of the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, a programme that will give young Africans an opportunity to travel to the US to learn from the country’s top lawmakers, and public and private sector leaders. On the third leg of the trip, Tanzania, POTUS announced “Power Africa”, the US government’s $7 billion energy investment, leveraged with another $9 billion in private sector funding, that will double Sub-Saharan Africa’s access to power. Electricity is a major constraint for growth and development in Africa, and with this investment, the US hopes to provide a spark that will see dividends in many forms including improved health and welfare, as well as increased economic activity.

Travelling with the White House Press Corps to Africa was a privilege and an opportunity. I am proud that Africa.com played a significant role in telling the story of President Obama’s trip to Africa, and that our voice has been recorded as one version of these historic events.

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