It was a homecoming that Kenyans had waited for for almost a decade. Wanjohi Kabukuru reports on Barack Obama’s memorable three-day visit to the land that bore his father.
President Barack Obama first visited Kenya in 1987, as an unassuming 26-year-old chino-wearing American citizen. He was visiting his father’s family for the first time since being born in Hawaii, to an American mother and Kenyan father in 1961. He returned to visit his family once more soon after being elected as an Illinois State Senator in 1997.
But 29 years later, since that first visit, a lot has happened: not only in his personal life – he is now a sharp-suited married father with two children – but most importantly, with his changing world history in 2009, by becoming America’s first ever African-American president of the US. He won a second (and last) four-year term in 2013.
But the history-making US leader made further history in July, becoming the first US president to visit Kenya (and Ethiopia) while serving in office. It was therefore a double-whammy for his Kenyan “brothers and sisters” and the celebrations over his visit will linger for some time, despite the fact that it was clear that the White House wanted to desensitise the visit from being about personal connections, and emphasising the fact that he was there for official duties.
That did not stop his kith, kin and close family members from celebrating his homecoming, in the way most Africans do – steeped in cultural song, dance and food. The Kenyan grapevine was ripe with reports of how the US leader, without saying it in words, was in his element and let his guard down when he was with his family. In a gesture that captivated and made the Kenyan public proud, his half-sister Auma Obama was among the few picked to welcome him at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, even sharing a ride in his heavily secured limousine, “the Beast.”
Obama’s first serious business on the Friday night that he landed in the capital Nairobi, was not the “US-Kenya bilateral talks”, it was to meet members of his Obama clan for dinner. Many distant uncles, aunties and cousins from his father’s side who he never knew about, were on hand to meet and share favourite Kenyan dishes. But Obama went a notch further in redefining protocol when he first addressed the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) on Saturday morning by greeting the participants in local slang, Sheng, asserting “Niaje Wasee…Hawayuni” (“How are you folks”).
This charming piece of camaraderie broke more barriers, and also united the nation. Obama’s open acknowledgement of M-Pesa, M-kopa and Ushahidi, all tech-innovations, dealing with money transfer, electricity supply and crowd sourcing, also endeared him to the Kenyan public. It was an endorsement of the country’s “Silicon Savannah” status, which has seen numerous life-transforming tech-upstarts gain root in Kenya and being replicated elsewhere in the continent. The greetings and meeting with extended family arguably set the tone of his entire trip and overshadowed the GES summit. “Obama’s visit seems to have united Kenyans in a quite astonishing way – we have not seen such a national celebratory mood since Kibaki’s 2002 election victory,” says Salim Lone, veteran Kenyan writer and a former UN spokesman.
On Sunday, mid-morning Kenyan television saw a new phenomenon, President Obama’s “sermon”. Not only did he lift a nation but using anecdotes from his past struggles in life and current standing, he inspired his fatherland. “I am the first Kenyan-American to become the President of the United States,” Obama proudly declared, electrifying a nation hanging on his every word. “You don’t need to go through the struggles my father went through. You can build your own future right here, right now.”
Kenyans saw the two faces of Obama. The first was a sensitive US leader at ease with himself, showing a complete change of tone whenever he recalled his roots in Kenya or spoke of his family.
The second was that of an authoritative US president who battled heavy odds to not only ride to leadership but also steer the world’s largest economy. What endeared Obama to many, however, was his assertion that “Africans themselves have solutions for pressing African problems.”
And just before Obama left for his next tour of duty in Ethiopia, it was clear who had gained from the “son of the soil’s” trip. His family, President Kenyatta’s Jubilee coalition government, young people and women all won handsomely.