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WHITE HOUSE NOTEBOOK: Obama gets lessons on Goree

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JULIE PACE | June 27, 2013 07:34 PM EST | AP

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GOREE ISLAND, Senegal — President Barack Obama says he learned some lessons on a visit to Goree Island, where he toured a slave house and gazed out at the Atlantic Ocean through what's known as the Door of No Return. It's the point on this Senegalese island from which Africans were said to have been shipped to the Americas and into slavery.

The son of a Kenyan man, Obama said the tour helped him, and the family members who accompanied him, to "fully appreciate the magnitude of the slave trade." He was joined by first lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha, his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, and a niece, Leslie Robinson.

The president said Thursday's trip also reminded him of the importance of standing up for human rights worldwide.

"This is a testament to when we're not vigilant in defense of human rights what can happen," Obama said after the tour. "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 spent about a half-hour touring the salmon-colored slave house, including seeing small holding rooms that separately held male and female Africans before they were loaded onto ships. He spent about a minute peering through the Door of No Return, and went back for a second long look after his family had a chance to peek out too.

Later, at a state dinner with Senegal's president, Macky Sall, Obama said he and Mrs. Obama "will never forget" the visit.

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What's a motorcade called when it travels on water? Try a floatercade.

Obama arrived on the island aboard La Signare, a 73-foot, blue-and-white launch decorated with Senegal's green, yellow and red flag and a banner that said "Welcome President Obama."

There were six boats in all, including smaller boats for Secret Service agents and other security officials, White House staff and the media.

U.S. reporters traveling with the president dubbed the flotilla a "floatercade."

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Sall surprised Obama at dinner with a Senegalese man Obama met years ago in Spain.

The man left such an impression on Obama that Obama wrote about him in his book "Dreams From My Father." Obama wrote of the man buying him coffee and offering him water, calling it a "chance encounter, a shared story."

That man, Selle Dieng, bounded up from his table when Sall introduced him. He excitedly shook Obama's hand, then greeted Mrs. Obama and the rest of the delegation.

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Tourists who come to Goree Island usually spend most of their time trying to avoid trinket-sellers and peddlers who swarm visitors from the moment they set foot off the ferry, plying them with beaded necklaces and offers of guided tours.

But the city went to great pains to clean up in anticipation of Obama's visit. Sandy lanes were swept clean of trash. The beach appeared to have been raked. Even the peddlers seemed to have been part of the cleanup effort too.

Instead of the usual mob, only a few hawkers greeted a ferry that docked the day before Obama arrived.

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Before coming to the island, Obama, who is a lawyer, told a meeting in Dakar of judges from the region that he had disappointed his late grandmother by going into politics.

She wanted him to be a judge.

Still, even though he let her down her by becoming a politician, Obama said she would be happy to know "that a group of judges are willing to meet with me even if I'm not one myself."

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As Africans awaited news about the health of ailing former South African President Nelson Mandela, Michelle Obama urged a group of middle school students to draw on his strength as they grow up to possibly become leaders in their own right.

Mandela, 94, who fought against his country's former system of white-minority rule and was imprisoned for 27 years, was in critical condition in a South African hospital.

Mrs. Obama urged the students to make their lives worthy of the sacrifices of people like Mandela.

"I want you to think about this. If President Mandela could hold tight to his vision for his country's future during the 27 years he spent in prison, then surely you all can hold tight to your hopes for your own future," she told the students at Martin Luther King Middle School in Dakar, the Senegalese capital.

"If President Mandela could endure being confined to a tiny cell, being forced to perform back-breaking labor, being separated from the people he loved most in the world, then surely, all of us, we can keep showing up and doing our best – showing up for school each day, studying as hard as you possibly can," she said. "Surely, you can seize the kind of opportunities Mandela fought for for all of us. Surely, you can honor his legacy by leaving a proud legacy of your own."

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Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Senegal and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jpaceDC