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Obama tells Africa: "Yes, you can"

Ghana encouraged by US president's message to drive their own destiny.

U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama (2nd L) and their daughter Sasha (L) take part in a departure ceremony at the airport in Accra on July 11, 2009. (Jim Young/Reuters)

ACCRA, Ghana — Even to untrained ears, its not hard to tell what the talking drums pattering at Kotoko International airport, or the spinning, chanting dervishes on the tarmac, or the local language broadcasts in the capital are saying: The Obamas have left.

Less than 24 hours after the United States’ first family seized the rapt attention of Ghana’s public, landing in Accra for President Barack Obama’s maiden presidential trip to sub-Saharan Africa, they left, wrapping up a visit that analysts say was just long enough for America’s first black president to deliver his special brand of inspirational messages to Africa.

Through the magnifying glass coverage of Ghana’s local media, the president’s visit at times had the look of a family road trip: The family toured a historic slave dungeon, and a maternity ward. Dad stepped aside for bilateral talks and a major speech to Ghana’s parliament.

At parliament, in his first significant pronouncement on Africa, the president outlined his aspirations for the continent, but offered few specifics and painted only broad-brush policy, analysts said.

Obama called for widespread reassessment of Africa’s governing structures, and for an economic transformation away from single-product economies.

If it was a message of “Change,” however, it wasn’t exactly a change of message for the president, who stressed before this African audience many of the same themes he introduced during his presidential campaign.

Obama spoke of the power of community service and grassroots organizing, of the importance of mending ethnic and religious differences, of the power of democracy, and the allure of hope.

Most of all, he called for a strengthening of Africa’s civil society institutions, and for a 21st century determined not by strong, strident leadership, but by common citizens more like his goatherd turned economist father, or the policewoman and the journalist he commended in his remarks.

“We’ve learned that it will not be giants like [Kwame] Nkrumah and [Jomo] Kenyatta that will determine Africa’s future,” the president said, referencing the commanding founding fathers of Ghana and Kenya, respectively. “Instead, it will be you — the men and women in Ghana’s parliament — the people you represent. It will be the young people brimming with talent and energy and hope who can claim the future that so many in previous generations never realized.”

For many in Accra, the president’s words echoed through a generational prism – at moments in the speech the president specifically called on the young to organize, a compelling message in this country where seniority and respect for elders pervade the political culture.

“Obama is 47,” said Eric Angel Corbenu, a professional political commentator. “How many 47-years-old Ghanaians would be given the opportunity to reach the high office like Obama in Ghana? Most people of 47 years are still seen as young people, that wisdom only resides in the heads of the aged. And I don’t believe in that.”

In his speech, Obama noted that “in places like Ghana, young people make up over half the population.”

“You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people,” he added.

“I was looking at that hall on the TV and wondering how many young people were even invited,” said Samuel Bartel, a radio host who recently resigned his position. “It’s just still the old political establishment, and the old political club who are in the elite. It doesn’t reflect that wind of change.”