The first time Barack Obama was in Kenya, his sister picked him at the airport in her battered Volkswagen Beetle. This time, he arrived on Air Force One and she rode with him in his armored presidential limo, known as The Beast.
Obama didn’t get back to his family’s village this time around, but its influence was never far as he visited Kenya for the first time as the U.S. president.
He used his family’s story to tell Kenya’s history and on Sunday delivered both a pep talk and a challenge for the nation.
“I’m confident that your future is going to be written across this country and across this continent by young people like you, young men and women who don’t have to struggle under a colonial power; who don’t have to look overseas to realize your dreams,” Obama said at a sports stadium to an estimated 4,500 cheering attendees. “You can realize your dreams right here, right now.”
Obama noted that two generations ago that hadn’t been the case. His grandfather was a servant for the ruling British, forced to carry a passbook that referred to him as a boy, “though he was a grown man.” And his father, he said, returned to Kenya after a U.S. education, but “couldn’t reconcile ideas that he had for his young country with the hard realities that confronted him.”
Now, he said, Kenya is witnessing political stability and a booming economy. Its people serve as international peacekeepers and conservation pioneers and there is a free press.
But Obama also relied on his favored son status to bluntly point out where he believes Kenya falls short with “problems that shadow ordinary Kenyans every day.”
He prodded its government – and its people -- to root out corruption, strengthen democracy, address inequality, embrace diversity and change attitudes toward women and girls.
Progress requires that you honestly confront the dark corners of our own past
President Barack Obama
Corruption costs Kenya 250,000 jobs a year, he said, with every Kenyan shilling paid as a bribe one that “could be put into the pocket of somebody who’s actually doing an honest day’s work.”
He called on the country to put aside tribal divisions that have spurred violence, warning that “a politics based solely on tribe and ethnicity is a politics that is doomed to tear a country apart.”
And he challenged the country to more fully embrace democracy and give opposition groups the space to speak.
“Democracy is sometimes messy,” he said, noting it means “somebody is always complaining about something.” But he added, “that’s why it works, because it’s constantly challenging leaders to up their game and to do better.”
He vowed to stand with Kenya in battling the Somalia-based terrorism group, al-Shabaab, but urged the country not to turn on Muslims and Somalians in the country.
“People should not be judged by their last name, or their religious faith, but by their content of their character and how they behave,” he said.
Urging Kenyans to abandon traditions such as forced marriages for young girls and female genital mutilation, Obama cited the U.S. debate over the Confederate flag. In the wake of the South Carolina church shooting, he said, more Americans recognize it shouldn’t be flown.
Treating women and girls as second class citizens, those are bad traditions.
President Barack Obama
“Just because it’s a tradition doesn’t make it right,” Obama said.
Those remarks were clearly more popular with the women in the audience. But students, several clutching American and Kenyan flags, said they were overjoyed by Obama’s message and believe it will resonate beyond his visit.
“I feel encouraged, motivated,” said Harriet Opama, 24, a third-year student at Kenyatta University who lives in western Kenya near the border with Uganda. “He told us that background doesn’t determine your future. Your future lies in your hands.”
Obama’s step-sister, Auma Obama, introduced her brother to the Kenyan audience, saying that he was “our familia, he’s one of us. But we’re happy to share him with the world because he’s not just ours.”
As much as the trip prompted a look back, it also showed Obama looking to a post-presidential future.
“You can anticipate not only me being back, but probably more important for everybody, Michelle being back, and Malia and Sasha coming back,” he said.
Just before he left, Obama told a Kenyan radio station that there were still “places in this beautiful nation that I haven’t discovered” and had fond memories of Masai Mara and Serengeti, along with Lamu. Next time, he suggested, he might head to Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain that sits just over the border in Tanzania, but is visible on clear days from Nairobi.
“Climbing Kilimanjaro seems like something that should be on my list of things to do once I get out of here,” he told Kenya’s CapitalFM. “The Secret Service generally doesn’t like me climbing mountains, but as a private citizen hopefully I can get away with something like that.”