US President Barack Obama and predecessor George W. Bush found common ground in Africa yesterday, honoring the victims of a terrorist attack in an unprecedented chance encounter a world away from home.
The US presidents had a brief, silent appearance together at a monument to victims of the 1998 embassy bombing in Dar es Salaam, where both coincidentally happened to be at the same time. While the two did not speak or interact, their wives held a warm and chatty joint appearance at a summit on African women.
Initially the two presidents were not even planning to meet while in town, but first lady Michelle Obama joked as she sat next to her predecessor, “They’re learning from us.”
The Obamas departed Africa for home shortly after crossing paths with the Bushes, who were hosting the summit promoting the role of African first ladies in bringing change to their countries.
Bush ended up joining Obama for the wreath-laying ceremony honoring the Tanzanian victims of the simultaneous attacks at the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and in Kenya masterminded by Osama bin Laden.
The two presidents bowed their heads as a US Marine placed the wreath of red, white and blue flowers on a stand. After a few moments, they shook hands with survivors of the attack and relatives of those killed before walking back into the embassy together after just a couple of minutes.
At that very moment, their wives were putting on a public display of mutual affection in a discussion moderated by US journalist Cokie Roberts.
Mrs Obama said she wanted to appear with Laura Bush because “I like this woman.”
“It’s sort of a club, a sorority, I guess,” Mrs Bush said.
Their goal was to encourage African first ladies, several of who were in their audience, to raise their voices for causes they are passionate about.
“While people are sorting through our shoes and our hair...” Mrs Obama started.
“Whether we have bangs,” Mrs Bush interjected to laughter.
Mrs Obama expressed surprise that her hair style would prompt so much media coverage, “Who would have thought?”
Mrs Bush said she could commiserate because her daughter Barbara’s haircut also caused a stir at one point.
However, Mrs Obama said: “Eventually people stop looking at our bangs and they start looking at what we are standing in front of.”
“We hope,” Mrs Bush joked.
While in Africa, Obama repeatedly has praised Bush for helping to save millions of lives by funding AIDS treatment.
“I’m looking forward to being able, on African soil, to once again thank him on behalf of the American people for showing how American generosity and foresight could end up making a real difference in people’s lives,” Obama said on Monday.
However, Obama also said he wants to change the approach the US takes with Africa.
“We are looking at a new model that’s based not just on aid and assistance, but on trade and partnership,” he said.
“Ultimately, the goal here is for Africa to build Africa for Africans,” Obama said. “And our job is to be a partner in that process.”
In that spirit, Obama announced a new trade agreement with eastern African nations and a program to bring more power to Africans without access to electricity.
One invention that could help on the electricity front is the SOCCKET ball, developed by two Harvard graduates.
The ball has a pendulum-like mechanism inside that creates kinetic energy during play and stores it. Its maker says 30 minutes of play can power a simple LED lamp for three hours. The plan is to distribute it to children in Africa.
During a visit to a power plant with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, Obama kicked a ball off his foot and did a low header.
“We’re going to start getting these all around Africa,” Obama said at the Ubungo Power Plant, which was funded by a US grant and built by US corporations General Electric and Symbion. “Pretty impressive stuff.”