WASHINGTON – 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 Tuesday night for a one-of-a-kind gathering of several dozen African leaders.
The leaders are attending a three-day conference organized by the White House and aimed at boosting U.S. ties to the continent. Obama highlighted his personal connection to Africa, his Kenyan father, during a brief toast.
Guests were brought to a massive tent erected on the South Lawn because the White House does not have any room 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 also spoke of the bonds between Africa and the U.S. and 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. He offered a toast to “the new Africa, the Africa that is rising and so full of promise.”
Among the African leaders were President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, the world’s newest country, and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa.
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.
There was political, Hollywood and athletic star power in the crowd, too.
Former President Jimmy Carter 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 and Meb Keflezighi, the Eritrean-born American winner of this year’s Boston Marathon.
First lady Michelle Obama wore a cream-colored dress by Prabal Gurung, one of her favourite designers.
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 was on hand to provide the after-dinner entertainment.
White House dinner guest list: http://1.usa.gov/1s9P9n0
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