Take a White House state dinner and multiply it by 50. The result is the most elaborate and unusual dinner of President Barack Obama’s administration, a one-of-a-kind affair put on Tuesday night for a one-of-a-kind gathering of several dozen leaders from countries across Africa.
The leaders are attending a three-day conference organized by the White House and aimed at boosting U.S. ties to the continent. Obama wasted little time highlighting his own personal connection to Africa during a brief toast. Guests were shuttled down to a massive tent erected on the South Lawn because the White House, as big as it is, does not have any rooms large enough that can hold the more-than-400 invited guests.
“I stand before you as the president of the United States, a proud American. I also stand before you as the son of a man from Africa,” Obama said drawing applause. “The blood of Africa runs through our family, so for us, the bonds between our countries, our continents are deeply personal.”
He warmly recalled family visits to Kenya before he became president, as well as stops at historic sites in Ghana, Senegal and South Africa with his family while in office. And he offered a toast to “the new Africa, the Africa that is rising and so full of promise.”
Among the African leaders who arrived at the White House one at a time over the course of 90 minutes were President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, the world’s newest country, and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa. Kiir wore a cowboy hat and waved dramatically to the media.
Egypt’s ambassador and Libya’s foreign affairs minister also attended. Next to last to arrive was Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has pleaded innocent to murder and other charges for his alleged role in organizing violence that left more than 1,000 people dead after Kenya’s 2007 elections. The case is before an international criminal court, and Obama pointedly skipped visiting Kenya when he toured Africa with his family last summer.
Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, who last month visited Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone, attended along with numerous other Obama administration officials, members of the delegations accompanying the African leaders, U.S. lawmakers and business leaders.
There was political, Hollywood and athletic star power in the crowd, too. Former President Jimmy Carter, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, a sponsor of a U.S.-Africa business forum where Obama spoke earlier Tuesday, mingled with guests before dinner. Also expected were actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, star of the Academy Award-winning drama “12 Years a Slave,” and Robert De Niro, NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and Meb Keflezighi, the Eritrean-born American winner of this year’s Boston Marathon.
After greeting Obama and first lady Michelle Obama inside the White House, guests boarded chartered trolley cars for a ride to the South Lawn. Mrs. Obama wore a cream-colored dress by Prabal Gurung, one of her favorite designers, with cut-outs in both the front and the back and her hair swept up into a bun.
The menu featured a largely American-style dinner with hints of Africa sprinkled throughout each of the four courses. Guests dined on chilled spiced tomato soup and socca crisps, which are made of chick peas; chopped farm-stand vegetable salad using produce from the first lady’s garden; and grilled dry-aged Wagyu beef served with chermoula, a marinade used in North African cooking, sweet potatoes and coconut milk.
Dessert was cappuccino fudge cake dressed with papaya scented with vanilla from Madagascar. American wines were also on the menu. Award-winning singer Lionel Richie provided the after-dinner entertainment.
“Tonight, we are going to have a party,” Richie said as he took the stage and quoted from the lyrics to “All Night Long,” one of his top hits. He then played the piano and eased the audience into what he said would be a short party by opening with “Easy,” another one of his hits.