After his father married a white woman from Kansas, Barack Obama was born in Honolulu. His parents divorced when he was young and his father moved back to Kenya, where he died in a car accident in 1982. Obama himself was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, largely by his mother and her family.
.Obama traveled to Kenya in 1998 to meet his paternal family while researching his African heritage for his book Dreams from My Father. He later traveled to five African nations as a senator from Illinois and met Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid leader. Obama isnt scheduled to see the 94-year-old Mandela, whose health is failing, on this trip.
None of that history translated into policy when Obama arrived at the White House.
Nothing in his record would give one reason to believe he would be engaged, said J. Peter Pham, an Africa specialist at the Atlantic Council, a Washington research center. The expectations were based on what he looked like and who his father was.
In Obamas first term, he spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa, stopping in Ghana on his way back from Europe in July 2009. He visited the dungeons of Cape Coast Castle, where many Africans were loaded onto slave ships, and spoke to the Ghanaian Parliament in a way no other president had. In a controversial speech, he challenged Africans to look to themselves to shape their destiny.
We must start from the simple premise that Africas future is up to Africans, Obama said.
Charlotte Florance, a research associate for economic freedom in Africa and the Middle East at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, said the presidents trip to Ghana was supposed to set a tone for his administrations policies in Africa, but that hed never followed through. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, appeared to make Africa a priority, visiting nearly half of its 54 nations, though experts say her activity didnt make up for his inactivity.
There was an idea he was going to engage in the continent, Florance said. But the focus and attention just wasnt there.
Africa, long known for corruption and wars, is now home to some of the fast-growing economies in the world, an exploding youth population and emerging democracies.
Obama laid out a vision for Africa while he was in Ghana that included democracy, opportunities for trade, access to public health care and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. He reiterated those same four pillars in the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa released last year, a document that included laudable but modest goals.
Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said Obama might have been trying to lower expectations since he was unable to provide significant aid to Africa during the United States economic downturn. But, she, said his African strategy came much too late.
As America stepped back, other countries including China, Brazil and Turkey stepped in and made major investments in Africa. China overtook the U.S. as Africas largest trading partner. It bought 20 percent of Standard Bank of South Africa, and its president and vice president have visited more than 30 African countries in recent years.
The White House picked a trio of nations known for democratic ideals for Obamas visit this week: the economic powerhouse of South Africa, the western country of Senegal a former French territory and Tanzania, the home of many U.S. programs and a frequent stop for American presidents. Obama is skipping Kenya, where a relatively peaceful election this year was marred by criminal charges against the winner, though hes mentioned a desire to visit there before his term ends.
Obama only occasionally mentions his African heritage when speaking and usually only when hes talking about Africa.
I have the blood of Africa within me, he said in 2009. My familys . . . own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story.
What he doesnt say is what Africans most want to hear: whether hell engage the continent now as president.