President Barack Obama – making his second visit to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office – on Thursday visited Goree Island, which once served as a strategic post in the transatlantic slave trade.
He called the trip a "powerful" reminder that "we have to remain vigilant when it comes to the defense of human rights. ...This is a testament to when we're not vigilant in defense of human rights, what can happen."
"Obviously, for an African-American, an African-American president, to be able to visit this site, I think, gives me even greater motivation in terms of human rights around the world," Obama said.
The president left the United States on Wednesday for a trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. The trip aims to bolster investment opportunities for U.S. businesses, address development issues such as food security and health, and promote democracy. It comes as China aggressively engages the continent. The Asian nation is pouring billions of dollars into Africa, running oil and mining firms, and in 2009 replaced the United States as the largest trading partner.
On Saturday, President Obama travels, stopping at Robben Island, where former South African President Nelson Mandela spent a majority of his 27 years in prison. The White House schedule does not include a visit with the anti-apartheid icon.
At a press conference Thursday, Obama spoke of the ailing Mandela, who is in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital.
"My first act of political activism was when I was at Occidental College as a 19-year-old – I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement," Obama said.
He said he was inspired by what was taking place at the time in South Africa. He had read Mandela's writings and speeches, and understood "that this was somebody who believed in that basic principle I just talked about – treating people equally – and was willing to sacrifice his life for that belief."
Mandela "is a personal hero" and "a hero for the world," Obama said. "And if and when he passes from this place, one thing I think we'll all know is that his legacy is one that will linger on throughout the ages."