President Obama’s Remarks to the African Union

The apex of his visit to Kenya and Ethiopia was President Obama’s remarks to the African Union, here in Addis Ababa.  Having spent five days on a two-country tour, Mr. Obama was able to address the Continent as a whole on Tuesday, sharing both his hopes and his concerns to a packed audience of 2,500 attendees inside Mandela Hall.  As a witness myself, I can attest to both the positive politically and socially charged atmosphere which was felt throughout those in attendance, waiting to hear from the Leader of the Free World what he and his administration view as the paths which have gotten Africa to where it is, along with the direction he hopes it will continue to follow.

Working as the Deputy Director for the White House Press Center, I was not only granted access myself, but likewise was able to invite many of my students from Ambo University, including those in the Women’s English Club as well as the Access Micro-Scholarship Program.  Total, we ended up having 104 students, six teachers, and one administrator who made it to the event- the single largest contingent in attendance apart from the Union members themselves!  The expressions of the students spoke for themselves; faces filled with joy coupled with wonderment.  A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I have no doubt that the remembrances from a Tuesday afternoon in late July will continue to resonate for years to come with each of those Ambo students who were lucky enough to be there.

The future!
Access Micro-Scholarship Program

Joining the Press Corps. for the entrance, I too was taken aback by the grandiosity of the African Union, this too being my first time to have the opportunity to visit.  Built by the Chinese (who are also in the process of building an adjoining hotel) I have only been able to glimpse from a distance, the buildings which make up the compound.  Yet with a police escort and badge clearance, this was obviously a different experience, allowed in rather than directed away.  Making my way though the vestibule and lobby, there were homage to past African leaders, many of whom have shaped the development of this great continent.

Leading up to Obama’s speech were some opening remarks by Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the Chairperson of the African Union.  She spoke of slavery and the subsequent building of America on the backs of free labor for reparation, cognizant that neither continent would be where they find themselves today if not for each other.  Likewise she expressed the notion that although Mr. Obama is indeed the President of the United States, Africa too, claims him as their own.  Dynamic and certainly speaking to the audience of Africans in attendance, Dr. Zuma was adamant in both her admiration of Obama as well as her foundation in Africa.  Partners not opposition; growing and learning together through political, economic, security, and economic progress.

Taking the podium for his nearly one-hour speech, Obama was, of course, met with a raucous applause from many in the audience, including my students who had left Ambo at 6am in the morning for this exact moment.  A rather good public speaker, he took control early, speaking in both generalities and specifics about the relations between the U.S. and Africa.  Acknowledging the faults associated with our respective early histories, he directed most of his efforts towards the future, knowing that is where the opportunities lie, including the prospects of students, not leaders, understanding the value of youthful energy coupled with developing ideals.

Touching upon issues which Ethiopia has many faults with, including Democracy and Human Rights got the largest applause, with the Prime Minister feigning interest knowing that after Obama leaves, nothing will change.  Still though, to introduce those notions to the audience and in turn to the rest of Africa hopefully will go to, at the least, begin a discussion which thus far has been oppressed with imprisonment and death.  With the same ruling party here for the past 25 years and with a neighbor in Burundi who will not step down, there were specifics names mentioned, drawing unwanted attention to a few specific countries.  Mentioning that the United States is not without its faults, the President reiterated that at least we try, while others simply don’t even bother.

For the members of my Women’s English Club who came, they were treated to highlighted issues dealing with gender equality, something that apart from me, they don’t really hear a lot of within and East African context.  Mr. Obama pointed out that, “The single best indicator of whether a nation will succeed is how it treats women…” most likely the first time many of the women in the audience had been aware of this.  Imagine having to wait until you were in university to be told that as a female you were equal to men, surrounded in a landscape that adamantly does not value equality amongst gender differences?!  This was what I was hoping for with respect to content; words which both directly describe and affect my students, encouraging them through motivation.

Empowerment Through Education!
Empowerment Through Education!

Since I wrapped up formal classes at Ambo University, these past few weeks have been an absolute blur, with continuous assignments and deadlines for the POTUS visit.  It was an incredible experience to be a part of, dealing with issues and complexities I could never have imagined.  Yet after the speech, when my students came up to hug me and express their gratitude for helping to facilitate their attendance, it made everything worth it.  If the late nights, the hurried writing, and the augmented scheduling on my behalf were a sacrifice for expanded knowledge, encouraged dreams, and fulfilled desires for my students, then President Obama’s address to the African Union was perhaps the best speech I have ever heard…

Ambo University Teachers


Pre-Arrival Preperations

The Press Center staff met this morning to review and go over the procedures beginning even prior to Wheels-Down tomorrow.  On the lead team are myself, one White House contact, a member from the U.S. Embassy in Rome, and two representatives from the Embassy here.  Within the general pool working with us are probably about 20 different local (read: Ethiopian) staff who will assist in a variety of different functions, including many of whom work in the Public Affairs Section, and with whom I am already familiar.  Their roles will be as tape couriers, press escorts, and technical support, working in revolving shifts over 24-hour periods for about three days starting tomorrow.

After the morning meetings, I made my way to the Embassy to pick up the Official Invitations for President Obama’s Speech at the African Union.  From my end, I have secured places for two different groups: The Ambo University Women’s English Club as well as the Ambo Access Micro-Scholarship Program.  From the Women’s Club, there are a total of 10 invitees, while from the Access Program, we are hoping to get 100 students to attend, plus six teachers.  Another difference between the two groups is that the women are all living in the capital of Addis for the Summer while all the Access students are still out in Ambo.  I have plans to meet the local student tomorrow (Sunday) to deliver the tickets, but am still in the process of arranging transportation for the Ambo students who are about three hours away.

For the speech itself, there will be two sections of attendees: those who will be in Nelson Mandela Hall and those who will have to view it via a parallel transmission in an “overflow” room.  This is the first time a sitting United States President has addressed the African Union, so it is understandable that there will be more people than seats, but our friends at the AU are certainly doing everything they can to accommodate everyone as best they can.  For the Access Students though, this means that about half will have a “real time” view of the President while half will watch via a live feed.  Such is a small price to pay, I imagine, for participation in a historic event.

As part of the Press group, I hope to have credentials which should allow me in via a (somewhat) VIP entrance, seated a bit closer than the average attendee, but still by no means next to Mr. Mugabe or Dr. Zuma.  However this may pose a problem with access to my students, all of whom will most likely be seated in the nosebleed seats, but still there nonetheless.  The effort I have put into this particular project is for them, so I do everything I can to see it though, hoping to be able to visit with them at some point within the AU Headquarters.
"Parallel Transmission" InvitationAfter processing Tuesday’s future plans with regards to the speech, I headed back to the Press Center where I am writing this from.  CNN has completed setting up their equipment and the Press Room looks like nothing I have ever seen before anywhere in Ethiopia.  There are hundreds of working telephones, computers, televisions, and other electronics which, after having spent the past nine months at Ambo University, look like something from the future 2050.  While the Revolution will certainly NOT be televised, the POTUS visit to Ethiopia certainly will be!

This is all a whirlwind experience for me, and this time next week I will be on a flight over the Atlantic via Frankfurt to Los Angeles.  Yet the reason I agreed to take this on was because of the lasting memories it will go to create, regardless of how hectic it all seems right now.  Sleep is not of the essence, rather production is, and over the course of the next week I aim to take as much of this in as possible.  From Obama’s short visit to what at times seemed like an eternity living and teaching in Ethiopia, I am grateful for these opportunities, and am happy to share a snapshot of them with you here…