ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — President Barack Obama met an unexpected guest on the way to Monday night’s state dinner at Ethiopia’s National Palace — Lucy.
She’s the most complete skeleton of an early human ancestor ever discovered.
Her formal name is AL-288-1, referring to several hundred pieces of 3.3 million-year-old bone from a female Australopithecus afarensis discovered in Ethiopia’s Afar region.
“That’s amazing,” Obama marveled as he scanned the fossils laid out in an open case in a room at the palace. He even gave them a touch after being encouraged to by researchers.
Lucy is normally housed in the National Museum of Ethiopia, but the exhibit was brought to the palace for Obama’s visit.
The president was so fascinated that he came back later with some of the members of Congress who made the trip to Ethiopia.
“It means he had fun here, and he wanted to share that excitement,” said Zeresenay Alemseged, head of the California Academy of Sciences, who conducted the tour.
As for encouraging Obama to touch the bones, Alemseged said, “Extraordinary people have extraordinary access.”
Later, Obama told guests at a state dinner that Lucy is a reminder that the world’s people are part of the same human family.
“So much of the hardship and conflict and sadness and violence that occurs around the world is because we forget that fact,” he said. “We look at superficial differences as opposed to seeing the fundamental connection that we all share.”
Obama, the owner of two dogs, seems a little envious.
The president opened a news conference with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on Monday by remarking with admiration on the rare Abyssinian lions that live on the grounds of Ethiopia’s National Palace.
“I’m considering getting some for the White House — although I’ll have to make sure my dogs are safe,” he said.
The Abyssinian lions, famed for their black manes, have long been associated with the imperial dynasty of Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie I, used to call himself “the lion of Judah.” The lion still appears on the local currency.
Invitations to a state dinner are typically among the most coveted of all invites.
Not this time, at least not for a leading opposition figure in Ethiopia.
Yilikal Getnet, chairman of the Blue Party, turned down an invitation to attend the state dinner with Obama, saying it would amount to taking part in a ‘luxurious dinner while millions suffer in Ethiopia.”
Yilikal told the local paper Negere Ethiopia that he also made the decision “after watching President Obama saying that the ruling party in Ethiopia is elected democratically.”
The country’s ruling coalition won a sweeping victory in parliamentary elections in May that Western nations criticized as unfair.
Obama found a new way to let people know he can be blunt.
Asked about Ethiopia’s human rights record at the news conference, Obama said the prime minister “will indicate that I don’t bite my tongue too much when it comes to these issues.”
Obama didn’t bite his tongue either when he was asked about criticism he’s been getting from Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. He said the GOP presidential candidates have unleashed a pattern of harsh remarks that “would be considered ridiculous, if it weren’t so sad.”
Hailemariam used his opening remarks at the joint news conference to highlight the historic nature of Obama’s visit as the first trip to Ethiopia by a U.S. president.
He said Ethiopia already has a number of firsts to its name, and he chose to highlight one that’s dear to caffeine lovers worldwide: his country’s standing as “the birthplace of coffee.”
Later, at a state dinner in his honor, Obama paid tribute to Ethiopia’s coffee contribution.
He said Americans are thankful that Ethiopians discovered “something that sustains people around the world, day and night, and many people in the White House, and that is coffee,” he said as guests in a large dining hall at the National Palace laughed.
“Thank you, Ethiopia. We are large consumers of coffee in the White House,” he said.
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