Obama caps Kenya visit with personal call for reform

Christi Parsons
Tribune Washington Bureau

Nairobi, Kenya — Describing himself proudly as a “Kenyan American,” President Barack Obama on Sunday reached deep into his personal history to urge this East African nation to reject the “dark corners” of its past and chart a “path to progress” befitting the 21st century.

Throughout his much-anticipated, three-day trip here, Obama delighted his father’s native country with humorous references to his family connections and by speaking short phrases in Swahili.

At the same time, Obama gently reminded Kenyans that his relationship with their nation today must be as U.S. president, not native son.

But as he departed for Ethiopia, Obama stepped fully into his unique role and spoke frankly to Kenyans as only a member of the family can.

In an address reflecting on his family’s past and their country’s future, Obama declared Kenya to be “at a crossroads” where it can either advance, or bind itself to harmful African traditions.

“Because of Kenya’s progress — because of your potential — you can build your future right here, right now,” Obama told the crowd of 4,500 packed into a sports arena in the capital of Nairobi. But he bluntly warned that Kenya must make “tough choices” to bolster its fragile democracy and fast-growing economy.

Tribalism, corruption, oppression of women and genital mutilation of girls all serve, the president said, as an “anchor that holds you down.”

“Every country has traditions that are unique,” he told the enthusiastic audience of university students and other young people. “Just because something is a part of your past doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean that it defines your future.”

The president drew on the recent debate in the U.S. over the Confederate battle flag, a Civil War-era relic that is seen by many as a racist symbol. The killing of nine people at a black church in South Carolina last month prompted a fresh debate over the flag, spurring some states to remove it from government grounds.

“Just because something is a part of your past doesn’t make it right,” Obama said.

Obama recalled the experiences of his father and grandfather, and his own journey in coming to terms with their struggles.

Obama’s grandfather was a cook for the British army under colonial rule and was forced to carry a humiliating domestic-servant passbook that referred to the grown man as a “boy” and included his number of teeth.

Barack Obama Sr. was a self-motivated, promising government economist whose career was cut short due largely to tribal discrimination and government corruption, but also his struggles with alcohol. He met and married President Obama’s mother when he was an exchange student in Hawaii, but then left them to return to Kenya when Obama was still a small child. The father died in a 1982 car accident, barely knowing his American son.

“Ultimately, he found disappointment — in part because he couldn’t reconcile the ideas that he had for his young country with the hard realities that had confronted him,” said Obama, who wrote extensively about his father in his 1995 autobiography, “Dreams From My Father.”

“And I think sometimes about what these stories tell us, what the history and the past tell us about the future. They show the enormous barriers to progress that so many Kenyans faced just one or two generations ago.”

Obama’s visit here, his first as president, captivated a country that views him as a local son. Thick crowds lined the roadways to watch the presidential motorcade speed through the city Sunday, some climbing on rooftops to get a better view. The audience inside the arena chanted his name as he finished his remarks.

The president left Kenya Sunday afternoon, arriving two hours later in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where he met with diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in the evening.

Obama has written emotionally about his first visit to Kenya as a young man nearly 30 years ago, and he recounted many of those same memories in his remarks Sunday. The battered Volkswagen his sister drove. Meeting his brothers for the first time. The airport employee who recognized his last name.

“That was the first time that my name meant something,” he said.

Obama met and grew closer to his Kenyan family in three trips to the country after his father’s death, but after his election as U.S. president he said he avoided visiting his father’s homeland, in part, so that he didn’t seem to be playing favorites.

Obama has numerous family members in the country, including his half-sister Auma Obama, who introduced him Sunday.

“He’s one of us,” she said. “But we’re happy to share him with the world.”

His Kenyan roots have at times been a political liability back home as opponents falsely claimed that Obama was secretly born in Kenya, rather than Hawaii, making him ineligible to be president.

Aides said Sunday marked the first time since taking office that Obama has publicly referred to himself as “Kenyan American.”

The bulk of Obama’s address was a candid commentary on the East African nation’s future. He spent considerable time warning about the risks of government corruption, calling it an “anchor” that could weigh down the country’s promising future.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has taken steps to tackle corruption by suspending four Cabinet secretaries and 16 other senior officials amid an investigation into allegations of dishonesty. But the public has met the action with skepticism, because in the past suspensions of senior officials haven’t resulted in anyone being convicted of a crime.

Some of those in attendance for the president’s speech said they were inspired by his appeal for progress in Kenya.

Upenbo Abraham, a 23-year-old economics student from an area of western Kenya near Obama’s relatives, said he was “encouraged, as a poor boy from a village next to his home.”

Obama is expected to offer similar messages about good governance and human rights during his two days of meetings with leaders in Ethiopia. Human rights groups have criticized the president for visiting the Horn of Africa nation, which is accused of cracking down on dissent, sometimes violently.

Associated Press contributed.