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Obama arrives in Africa where an ailing Mandela awaits

 Updated June 27, 11:18 a.m. 
A woman carrying her baby on her back walks past a poster of U.S. President Barack Obama and Senegal's President Macky Sall before Obama's visit in Dakar June 26, 2013.  (Photo by Joe Penney/Reuters)
A woman carrying her baby on her back walks past a poster of U.S. President Barack Obama and Senegal's President Macky Sall before Obama's visit in Dakar...

Updated June 27, 11:18 a.m.

President Obama arrived in Senegal Wednesday for the start of a weeklong trip to promote trade in Africa and to smooth over criticisms of neglect in his first term. At the other end of the continent, the critically declining health of South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, is poised to overshadow the agenda of America’s first.

Obama opened his trip with words of respect and admiration for the ailing anti-apartheid leader, calling him “a personal hero” as well as a “hero for the world” and reflecting on his own coming-of-age in the United States.

“My first act of political activism was when I was at Occidental College as a 19-year-old,” Obama said. “I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement back in 1979, ‘80, because I was inspired by what was taking place in South Africa.”

“I think at that time I didn’t necessarily imagine that Nelson Mandela might be released but I had read his writings and his speeches, and I understood that this was somebody who believed in that basic principle [of] treating people equally and was willing to sacrifice his life for that belief…it gave me a sense of what is possible in the world when righteous people, when people of goodwill work together on behalf of a larger cause.”

From Senegal, President Obama will travel to South Africa, where anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela is hospitalized, and then on to Tanzania. The trip is Obama’s second as president to sub-Saharan Africa. He made a 22-hour stop in Ghana in July 2009.

Just weeks shy of his 95th birthday, Mandela remains in a Pretoria hospital where he has been undergoing treatment for a recurring lung infection since June 8. Police reportedly set up barricades near the main entrance of the hospital, as well-wishers stood vigil with signs, balloons and stuffed animals. South African President Jacob Zuma last updated the public with news that Mandela is in critical condition; Zuma canceled a planned trip in order to remain in the country. Mandela's family is with him.

Mandela’s daughter said Tuesday that he “opened his eyes and smiled” upon hearing news of Obama’s upcoming visit.

According to White House officials, the president will defer to family wishes on whether to visit the ailing civil rights leader at his hospital bedside. The two met during Obama’s time as an Illinois senator, but not since he made history as the first African-American president of the United States.

Obama’s tour through the three nations, all functioning democracies, will focus on unlocking economic potential, new trade and energy initiatives, as well as youth programs.

He will meet with heads of state and business leaders and pay respects at sites of national importance, including a memorial and museum at Senegal’s Goree Island, where thousands were forced into the slave trade, and the jail cell that Mandela occupied on Robben Island. In Tanzania, he will pay respects at the site of the 1998 American embassy bombing, and unveil an energy initiative at the country’s Ubungo power plant.

The first family is traveling with the president, and Michelle Obama is slated to appear at the African First Ladies Summit, hosted by the George W. Bush Institute, alongside former first lady Laura Bush on July 2. Both Bushes are also in Africa this week.

Obama’s two predecessors, Bush and former president Bill Clinton, made strides in U.S. policy toward Africa during their terms in office. Bush’s $15 billion commitment toward fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa, known as Pepfar, stands as one of his greatest foreign policy achievements. Clinton launched the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a trade agreement with sub-Saharan nations.

The Obama administration has engaged less with the African continent to date.

“Africa is more important to the U.S. now than it’s ever been in our history and it’s ironic that at precisely this moment, the U.S. seems to be stepping back and hands off,” Todd Moss, vice president for programs and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, told msnbc. “I think that’s the stark contrast that the president needs to overcome on this trip.”

Africa boasts six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies and has attracted investor interest from Turkey, Brazil, and especially China in recent years.

As the African continent’s largest trading partner, China’s $200 billion annual trade is nearly twice that of the U.S. Underscoring the importance of this relationship, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited two of the countries on Obama’s itinerary, Tanzania and South Africa, within two weeks of taking office earlier this year.

“Even though China has a much larger commercial footprint in Africa, I think there’s a deep desire to see an increased U.S. commercial presence there,” Witney W. Schneidman, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Senior Policy Adviser for Africa with Covington & Burling LLP told msnbc.

“American brands are very popular on the continent. American companies tend to train workers and to transfer technology. The same cannot be said for Chinese companies,” Schneidman said.

Notably absent from the president’s agenda are visits to Kenya and Nigeria, two of the main markets for American companies. Kenya also is the birthplace of Obama’s father and home to living relatives.

"I have the blood of Africa within me, and my family's own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story," Obama said during his visit to Ghana four years ago.

Should former President Mandela’s health take a turn for the worse, Obama’s trip will quickly shift focus and logistics. The high-security itinerary and travel expenses have already sparked criticism in some corners.

“I think [the criticism] is way overblown,” Schneidman said. “There’s a tremendous value when the U.S. president travels to meet with heads of state.”

“For instance, on this Africa trip, the administration has been working on various initiatives they can announce during the trip that will further U.S. interests," Schneidman said, pointing to the energy, trade and youth initiatives scheduled to be unveiled over the course of the week.