Thursday, June 27, 2013

For President Obama, A Special Reunion At President Sall's State Dinner In Senegal

The son of Kenya meets a long-lost African companion he described in his bestselling memoir, Dreams From My Father...
President Obama has been presented with a wide range of gifts from foreign leaders since taking office, receiving everything from a leather Hermes golf bag to hand soap to the work of acclaimed artists.  But Senegal's President Macky Sall might be the winner in the diplomatic gift-giving derby.  On Thursday evening during the State Dinner at his Presidential Palace in Dakar, Sall presented his guest of honor with a "gift" plucked from his youth.  (Above, Sall toasts the President)

Sall, 52, orchestrated a reunion between Mr. Obama and a Senegalese man whom he wrote about in his memoir Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.  It's unclear how Sall discovered the fellow, whom he identified as Mr. Selle Dieng, from the dim mists of pre-presidential youth.  Published in 1995, the coming-of-age story leaps across continents as the young Obama tries to come to terms with the Kenyan father he barely knew, and he didn't identify the man by name in the book. 

"What was his name? I couldn’t remember now; just another hungry man far away from home, one of the many children of former colonies," Mr. Obama wrote as he described a kindly man from Senegal, who was "slender and bandy-legged."  They met by chance during a game of pool in a tavern somewhere between Madrid and Barcelona, and briefly traveled together, speaking in broken Spanish.  The stranger's kindness to the younger and penniless Obama--he bought him coffee and water--was the point of the tale.  

In a moment borrowed from reality TV, Sall had the long-lost Mr. Dieng secretly seated among the 150 guests gathered for the dinner in the flower-laden ballroom of his immaculate seaside mansion, which looks very similar to the White House.  He made his big reveal during his toast to President Obama.

Though the dinner was not a black tie affair, the women wore gowns:  First Lady Michelle Obama was clad in a cap-sleeved floor-length organza confection with a paisley print created by designer Naeem Khan.  Dangling gold and diamond earrings sparkled in her ears, and her hair was rolled up, her bangs pushed aside.  The Presidents both wore dark suits.

After an action-packed first day in Senegal, the President and Mrs. Obama had entered the ballroom with Sall and his wife First Lady Mariéme Sall at 8:31 PM, receiving a standing ovation from the guests after walking a red carpet lined with guards in red and gold military uniforms with red capes.

Inside the ballroom, the color scheme continued: Guests sat at round tables for ten decorated with red and gold accents, with red-tinted wine glasses and gold-rimmed china.  Floral arrangements were red and white blooms.

Toasting President Obama in remarks delivered in English, Sall saluted him before the gathered dignitaries as Senegal's best ally, and said Mr. Dieng and his chance meeting with the future Leader of the Free World symbolized all that is excellent in the US-Senegal relationship, whose ties "are ancient, robust, and trustworthy."
"It was in Spain, in a bus bound for Barcelona, you took a liking to one of my compatriots, Mr. Selle Dieng," Sall said.

"In this book of yours, you said that he told you about his wife he had left behind in Senegal and of his dream to earn enough money to bring her over," Sall said.  "He offered coffee and water to you--a coincidental meeting, a shared history, a small gesture of kindness, you say." 

Sall had done his homework: "...maybe that was all any of us had a right to expect: the chance encounter, a shared story, the act of small kindness," Mr. Obama wrote about his companion.

"This gesture of human fraternity expresses the values uniting Senegalese and Americans," Sall declared as he continued.  

"Definite and strong values--faith in God, family and work, openness to the other, an attachment to democracy and freedom.  This is the reason why so many of my fellow countrymen feel so comfortable in your country and are successfully pursuing their American Dream." 

At Sall's behest, an excited Mr. Dieng was led to the Head Table, and pool reported that indeed, the President seemed quite surprised as he stood up and shook hands with the man.  Mrs. Obama also shook hands with him, but there was no report of any verbal exchange between the President and the son of Senegal whom he'd memorialized in his bestseller; Sall continued on with his toast after the hand-shaking.

Ticking off more milestones in the US-Senegal alliance, Sall closed by offering a toast to "the health and well-being of our illustrious the health and well-being of their children and their delegation; and to the continuous prosperity of the friendly American people." 

Surprised or not by the presence of Mr. Dieng, the President made no mention of him as he stood to make his response toast, and instead followed protocol and thanked and praised his hosts.  He gave a shout-out to a different son of Senegal, college hoops star Gorgui Dieng, apparently no relationship to the mysterious Mr. Dieng.   

The 6'11' star center from championship University of Louisville arrived in the US in 2009.

"I couldn’t be here today if I didn’t mention that today, back in the United States, is NBA draft day," the hoops-obsessed President Obama said, to laughter.  

"And that there’s going to be a team that makes a wise decision by drafting a favorite son of Senegal, Gorgui Dieng, who is an outstanding big man, and maybe the Bulls will get him."

Hoops and fancy dinners abroad are possibly linked in President Obama's mind: Last week in Berlin, NBA star Dirk Nowitzki was a guest at Chancellor Angela Merkel's Official Dinner for the President.

Sadly, the President will not be watching Dieng play for his beloved hometown team.  As he slept in his hotel suite in Dakar, the Minnesota Timberwolves got "the outstanding big man" when he was the 21st pick in the NBA draft. 

Sall took office in April of 2012, and President Obama has met with him at the White House. The two spent much of Thursday together, while Mrs. Obama and Mme. Sall had their own outings before the First Family "floatercaded" to Gorée Island, two miles off the coast of Senegal, to tour the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves) Museum. (Above, Mrs. Obama and Sall toast)

"Here in Senegal, we’ve seen--I’ve seen personally--the principles of democracy at work in this generation and I believe in future generations," President Obama said as he continued his toast.  

"I salute you and your administration for seeking what you have called 'a new mindset,' a 'new consciousness'--government that upholds 'the sanctity of the public good.'"

He thanked Senegal for preserving Gorée Island as "one of the world’s great heritage sites."

"Michelle and I will never forget today’s visit...where we looked out that 'door of no return,'" President Obama said, referring to the place that for almost four centuries was the entrance to the slave ships bound for the Americas.

"It’s a reminder of the potential in humanity that we can show one another, but it also I think reminds us of how vigilant we have to be in upholding the dignity and the rights of all people," President Obama said before ending his toast simply.  

He raised a wine glass of water.

"So, Mr. President, I want to propose a toast to our gracious hosts, to our two great nations, to the abiding friendship between our peoples--à votre santé."

No menu was released for the dinner.  The President and Mrs. Obama departed a little more than two hours after they arrived at the Palace, with their motorcade delivering them back  to the Radisson Blu hotel at 10:50 PM.  They drove by posters and banners hanging all over the city that read "Welcome Home President Obama."

UPDATE, Friday, June 28_____________________ 
Press Secretary Jay Carney and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes gave reporters more details about the President's dinner meeting with Mr. Dieng.  Both were at the affair, which Rhodes described as "lively," and Carney dubbed "wonderful."

President Obama was indeed surprised to be reunited with Mr. Dieng.

"I know he was very glad to meet him," Carney said, but both he and Rhodes said they didn't know if the President and his old friend had a chance to have a conversation before the President departed the palace.  

But the President definitely remembered Mr. Dieng, and had discussed him with aides before arriving in Dakar.

"He was actually remarking on remembering meeting that person," Rhodes said.  "He said he remembered it quite vividly, had written about it in “Dreams of My Father” before he knew that he would be attending the dinner."  

"So it was a surprise but it certainly is an account that the President remembered," Rhodes added.  

He noted that the President's book is "a story that speaks to what’s possible for people from the African continent."

"So clearly in Senegal they took great pride in that encounter and how the President remembered it," Rhodes said.

He added a few more details about the festivities:  

"It was a very lively state dinner and, interestingly, the Minister of Tourism in Senegal is also a Grammy Award-winning artist.  And so he got up and took the mic, and sang a few songs," Rhodes said.

The Minister is world music icon Youssou N’dour, who ran against Sall for the presidency before dropping out and throwing his support behind his former rival. 

"It was amazing," Carney said.  "It was a fantastic performance, actually--a wonderful dinner.  I know the President and First Lady enjoyed it."

The President did not get up and sing, Carney said, when asked.   
END UPDATE_________________________________

There was one more gift for President Obama on Thursday night: The US Senate gave final approval to sweeping immigration reform legislation, on a vote of 68-32.  The President issued a statement praising the lawmakers.

On Friday morning, the President will participate in a Feed the Future food security event in Dakar, where he will "meet with farmers, innovators, and entrepreneurs whose new methods and technologies are improving the lives of smallholder farmers throughout West Africa," the White House said.

Later in the morning, President and the First Family--including First Daughters Malia and Sasha, First Grandmother Marian Robinson and Mrs. Obama's niece Leslie Robinson--will depart Senegal, heading for the second leg of their trip with a visit to South Africa.  

In the evening, the President will attend a closed-press meet and greet with Embassy personnel at the U.S. Consulate in Johannesburg.  The President and the First Family will remain overnight in Sandton, South Africa. 

*The transcript of the Presidents' toast remarks

CLICK HERE for links to all posts about the trip, President Obama's fourth abroad in his second term.  

The excerpt from Dreams From My Father that details the President's meeting with Mr. Dieng:

"What was his name? I couldn’t remember now; just another hungry man far away from home, one of the many children of former colonies – Algerians, West Indians, Pakistanis – now breaching the barricades of their former masters, mounting their own ragged, haphazard invasion. And yet, as we walked toward the Ramblas, I had felt as if I knew him as well as any man; that, coming from opposite ends of the earth, we were somehow making the same journey. 

When we finally parted company, I had remained in the street for a long, long time, watching his slender, bandy-legged image shrink into the distance, one part of me wishing then that I could go with him into a life of open roads and other blue mornings; another part realizing that such a wish was also a romance, an idea, as partial as my image of the Old Man or my image of Africa. Until I settled on the fact that the man from Senegal had brought me coffee and offered me water, and that was real, and maybe that was all any of us had a right to expect: the chance encounter, a shared story, the act of small kindness."

*Photos by Evan Vucci/AP