US President Barack Obama visits Kenya as a local son

July 25, 2015 5:11 am

 

Workers
finish installing a large billboard showing ’s President Uhuru
Kenyatta and in downtown Nairobi. Photo / AP

Fulfilling the hopes of millions of Kenyans, Barack Obama returned to
his father’s homeland Friday for the first time as US president, a long
sought visit by a country that considers him a local son.
The
president spent the evening reuniting with his Kenyan family, including
his elderly step-grandmother who made the trip to the capital of Nairobi
from her rural village. US and Kenyan flags lined the main road from
Nairobi’s airport, and billboards heralding Obama’s trip dotted the
city.

President Barack Obama hugs his half-sister Auma Obama at Kenyatta International Airport. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama hugs his half-sister Auma Obama at Kenyatta International Airport. Photo / AP
“I don’t think that Kenyans think of Obama as
African-American. They think of him as Kenyan-American,” said EJ
Hogendoorn, deputy program director for at the International
Crisis Group.
Obama’s link to Kenya is a father he barely knew, but whose influence can nonetheless be seen in his son’s presidency.

Obama has spoken candidly about growing up without his
Kenyan-born father and feeling “the weight of that absence.” A White
House initiative to support young men of color who face similar
circumstances has become a project dear to Obama, one he plans to
continue after leaving the White House.
In Africa, Obama has used
his late father’s struggle to overcome government corruption as a way
to push leaders to strengthen democracies. He’s expected to make good
governance and democracy-building a centerpiece of his two days of
meetings and speeches in Nairobi, as well as a stop next week in
Ethiopia.
“In my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and
patronage and nepotism in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch
derailed his career,” Obama said during a 2009 trip to Ghana, his first
visit to Africa as president. “We know that this kind of corruption is
still a daily fact of life for far too many.”
The president’s
father, Barack Obama, Sr., left Kenya as a young man to study at the
University of Hawaii. There, he met Stanley Ann Dunham, a white woman
from Kansas. They would soon marry and have a son, who was named after
his father.
The elder Obama left Hawaii when he son was just two
years old, first to continue his studies at Harvard, then to return to
Kenya. The future president and his father would see each other just
once more, when the son was 10 years old. Obama’s father died in a car
crash in 1982, at age 46.
“I didn’t have a dad in the house,”
Obama said last year during a White House event for My Brother’s Keeper,
his initiative for young men. “I was angry about it, even though I
didn’t necessarily realize it at the time.”
Obama’s first trip to
Kenya nearly 30 years ago was a quest to fill in the gaps in the story
of his father’s life. In his memoir “Dreams From My Father,” Obama wrote
that at the time of his death, “my father remained a mystery to me,
both more and less than a man.”
What Obama uncovered was a
portrait of a talented, but troubled man. An economist for the Kenyan
government, the senior Obama clashed with then-President Jomo Kenyatta
over tribal divisions and allegations of corruption. He was ultimately
fired by the president, sending him into a tailspin of financial
problems and heavy drinking.
The Kenyan leader Obama will meet
with this weekend, Uhuru Kenyatta, is the son of the president his
father confronted decades ago.
Obama met most of his Kenyan
family for the first time on that initial trip to his father’s home
country. As he stepped off Air Force One Friday, he was greeted by
half-sister Auma Obama, pulling her into a warm embrace. The siblings
then joined about three dozen family members at a restaurant at the
president’s hotel for a private dinner.
Logistical constraints
and security precautions prevented Obama from visiting Kogelo, the
village where his father lived and is buried, on this trip. Sarah Obama,
the step-grandmother he calls “Granny,” still lives in the village.
Despite
the intense focus on the American leader’s local roots, the White House
has cast the trip as one focused on the relationship between the US and
Kenya, not the president and his family. Officials say Obama’s agenda
is heavily focused on trade and economic issues, as well as security and
counterterrorism cooperation.
The president is traveling with
nearly two dozen US lawmakers, along with 200 US investors attending the
Global Entrepreneurship Summit. Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and
Sasha did not accompany the president.
Auma Obama said she believed her late father would be proud to see his son return to Kenya as American president.
“He’d
be extremely proud and say, ‘Well done,”‘ she said in an interview with
CNN. “But then he’d add, ‘But obviously, you’re an Obama.”‘

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