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Village dreams of Obama’s Kenyan homecoming visit

Christopher Torchia
Associated Press

Nairobi, Kenya — Karibu Kenya, President Obama. Welcome to Kenya.

For many Kenyans, the Swahili-language slogan will be more than just a polite greeting when the American president visits the country this week where his father was born, his first trip to Kenya since he was a U.S. senator in 2006.

They see it as a homecoming for Obama, who has written with depth and emotion about his Kenyan roots but might not have time to explore them this time, enveloped as he will be by official duties.

“They take it really personally,” Nelly Ngugi, customer relations manager at Cafe Deli in downtown Nairobi, said Wednesday of fellow Kenyans. Obama’s visit is like “a brother coming back,” she said.

When Obama visited Kenya for the first time nearly 30 years ago, he was astonished that an airport worker recognized his last name.

It was a striking experience for a young man struggling to understand how a country he had never seen and a Kenyan family he barely knew had shaped his identity.

“My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances, and grudges I did not yet understand,” Obama wrote in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” about the airport encounter.

This will be Obama’s first visit to Kenya as U.S. president, a trip that will bear little resemblance to the 1988 one, when he arrived aboard commercial flight and his luggage got lost. Now, Air Force One will take Obama to a country where kids, roads and schools now bear his name.

Obama is scheduled to arrive in Kenya on Friday, the first stop on his two-nation African tour in which he will also visit Ethiopia.

Security concerns and the logistics of presidential travel will keep Obama at a distance from most Kenyans. He will skip a visit to Kogelo, the rural village in western Kenya where his father was born and buried, and where other family members still live.

A smiling image of Obama adorns the cover of this month’s edition of a Kenya Airways magazine. U.S. and Kenyan flags line the road leading from Nairobi’s main airport as well as some downtown areas.

Sarah Obama, the matriarch of the Obama family, said in her home village of Kogelo in western Kenya that she will not feel bad if the president does not visit her.

“He has to come to discharge his duty,” said Sarah Obama, the second wife of Obama’s grandfather who helped raise his father, Barack Obama Sr.