How Obama blended sentiment and strategy in Kenya visit

President Barack Obama emphasized both his personal relationship with and political plans for Kenya during his two-day visit to his father’s land.

Evan Vucci/AP Photo
People cheer as the motorcade of President Barack Obama passes by on the way to deliver a speech at Safaricom Indoor Arena, on Sunday, July 26, 2015, in Nairobi. On the final day of his visit in Kenya, Obama laid out his vision for Kenya's future, and broad themes of US-Kenya relations.

President Barack Obama wrapped up his two-day trip to Kenya this weekend with a message that was as political as it was personal.

Speaking on Sunday at the Safaricom Indoor Arena in Nairobi, Mr. Obama sought to strengthen his relationship with the country of his father’s birth by challenging Kenya to do the things necessary to become an emerging world power: stamp out corruption and uphold democracy, end discrimination against women and girls, and overcome intolerance for ethnic minorities – a message in line with his administration’s broader theme of “helping Africans help themselves,” experts say.

“Obama came into office as a symbol for Africa, being the first African-American president, but that generated very high expectations that in turn led to very deep disappointment when it turned out Africa was not the priority for the US that people expected,” Joseph Siegle, director of research at the National Defense University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, told The Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi.

Indeed, critics have faulted Obama for failing to offer Africa the kind of big-ticket aid programs that President George W. Bush did with his President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge development initiative, as well as for ceding America’s dominant place in Africa to China, Mr. LaFranchi wrote.

But “the administration’s goal is to build African capacities and support them rather than try to introduce new programs from the outside,” Mr. Siegle said.

To that end, Obama during his speech focused on supporting Kenya’s people in efforts to strengthen their own economy and government.

“You can’t be complacent and just accept the world as it is,” the president told an audience made up largely of young people, who cheered his calls for political and social reform, according to the Washington Post. “You have to imagine what the world might be.”

Obama denounced corruption, which “infuses many aspects of daily life for Kenyans,” the New York Times noted. He also urged support for women and girls and an end to practices such as genital mutilation and forced marriage, customary in Kenya’s patriarchal society.

“Treating women and girls as second-class citizens, those are bad traditions,” he said. “They need to change.”

Obama arrived in Kenya amid extraordinary excitement among locals, some of whom had been cashing in on his visit with Obama-themed T-shirts and other paraphernalia. They also turned up in the thousands to line the route from Kenyatta University, where the president landed, to the speech site. 

It was that excitement that Obama sought to use to prod much-needed changes in his ancestral homeland: Prior to his speech, he was introduced to the audience by his half sister, Auma Obama, according to the Times.

“While his first allegiance is to the American people,” she said, “he also continues to be closely in touch to us and his Kenyan heritage.”

The president also addressed the numerous restraints that have kept him from spending more time in the country, recounting how he had apologized to three dozen of his Kenyan relatives over dinner shortly after arriving in Nairobi Saturday, the Post reported.

“I’m more restricted, ironically, as president of the United States than I will be as a private citizen in terms of some of the hands-on and direct help that I’d like to give,” Obama said, adding that he intends to return to Kenya once his time in office is over.

“I’ll be back,” he said. “The next time I'm back, I may not be wearing a suit.”

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