Obama's message of hope rings true in call for Africa to flourish
No one can doubt that America is still a land where anything is possible, told a tearful crowd in Grant Park, Chicago, on the night of his election as the country’s first black president. The audacity of hope has inevitably taken a battering in the intervening years against impossibly high expectations.
Yet there is one place in the world where it appeared to remain undimmed on Saturday. The spirit of 2008 was shining in as the country embraced its “son of the soil” on his first visit since reaching the White House. Nairobi gave Obama its adulation. In return, the man who embodied the American dream offered a vision of the African dream.
Whereas previous US presidents have offered charity and aid, Obama told a summit of entrepreneurs in Nairobi that Africa’s time had come as a place of innovation, with young people, and especially women, poised to transform the continent. “I wanted to be here because is on the move,” he said. “This continent needs to be a future hub of global growth, not just African growth. And the country that’s hosting us today is setting an important example – Kenya is leading the way.”
Obama’s own extraordinary rise in the space of a generation – his father went from Kenyan goat herder to student in America – makes millions of Kenyans believe that they, too, can one day reach the pinnacle. Dorothy Ghettuba, a media entrepreneur attending the conference, was inspired. “I loved his message,” she said. “It was timely and encouraging. It was the kick I need to keep going.”
She added: “There’s only so long that Africa can rely on aid and handouts. What’s important about the entrepreneurial spirit is that it’s empowering to change the narrative about Africa.”
It was a view echoed by the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, in remarks before Obama’s. “Africa is the world’s newest and most promising frontier of limitless opportunity,” he said.
“Gone are the days when the only lens to view our continent was one of despair and indignity. This country, this continent, does not claim perfection – but we can claim progress. The key insight is to see that we are at the beginning of a great journey.”
With no shortage of autocrats, coups and inequalities, but some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Africa has changed profoundly over the past decade. That means a different relationship with America, China and other major powers.
Tony Elumelu, a billionaire investor from Nigeria, noted: “This is history in the making. It’s a new tone in the American-African relationship driven by entrepreneurship. For the first time, an American president comes to Africa to preach trade and investment instead of aid. He’s touching the right buttons and saying the right things.”
Kenya, the biggest economy in east Africa, is one of the perceived stars, having grown out of its people’s ingenuity in the absence of oil or other natural resources. , has produced world-leading mobile money and crowdsourcing applications. Like the Obama of old in that first election campaign, the president senses change – and hope – in the air.
“When I was here in Nairobi 10 years ago, it looked very different than it does today,” he said in his closing remarks. “The incredible progress that’s been made – imagine what could happen if more and more of our global business leaders and global capital paid a visit and actually had a conversation, as opposed to just being blinded by some of the stereotypes that are so often promoted. This thing could move even faster.”
It was easy to see why, as his poll ratings have dipped at home and as even some in Africa have become disenchanted, suggesting that he has done less for the continent than his white predecessor, Kenya has kept the faith. published a 128-page issue in honour of “the son of a Kenyan father who rose from obscurity to rule the world”, and other media have devoted wall-to-wall coverage.
At least half a dozen newborn babies have reportedly been named Barack Obama, while the Stars and Stripes are a common sight in Nairobi and traders have been quick to seize on the potential of flags, Obama T-shirts and other knick-knacks.
Justin Ombati, 35, said: “This trip has been a godsend to me. I usually sell secondhand shoes but for the last week I have been selling only American flags. Five hundred are gone already and I only have about 15 left.”
Such is the emphasis on his heritage that, had Obama come here before , it may well have proved an electoral suicide mission thanks to the “birther” movement, which insisted he had been born in Kenya and was therefore ineligible for president. Outlandish as the claim was, in 2011 Obama felt obliged to show up in the White House briefing room with his Hawaiian birth certificate.
How the birthers would also have endlessly replayed clips of his opening remarks at Saturday’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit: “It is wonderful to be back in Kenya. Niaje wasee? [How are things?] Hawayuni? [How are you guys?].”
At Saturday night’s state dinner Obama joked that some of his critics in the US no doubt believed he was back in Kenya “to look for my birth certificate”.
“That is not the case,” he said, before speaking of Kenyatta’s father, Jomo, and his father, who knew each other. “It would have been hard for them to imagine how their sons might be sitting here today.”
Liberated of electoral concerns, Obama was at ease earlier in the day as he walked into the conference hall to be greeted by whoops, a standing ovation and clicking camera phones from an audience that included his step-grandmother, Sarah, and half-sister Auma.
“I’m proud to be the first US president to visit Kenya,” he said. “And this is personal for me. There’s a reason why my name is Barack Hussein Obama. My father came from these parts, and I have family and relatives here. And in my visits over the years, walking the streets of Nairobi, I’ve come to know the warmth and the spirit of the Kenyan people.”
The first sitting US president to visit Kenya shared a stage with innovators including Kenya’s Judith Owigar, whose company offers technology training to young women in deprived areas, and admitted that he is slow at text messaging compared with his daughters.
In downtown Nairobi, crowds gathered in pubs and restaurants to watch live coverage of the visit, alongside vendors selling assorted Obama-themed memorabilia. Eighteen-year-old student Kevin Ochieng said he had left home in the half-light of dawn to navigate road closures and police stops to try and catch sight of the president. “I will make sure I see him and shout until he hears me. We expect he will help Kenya improve the security situation.”
One of the most expectant gatherings was in the village of Kogelo, where Barack Obama senior grew up herding goats before embarking on his fateful journey to the US to get an education. Locals sat in small groups following proceedings in Nairobi in the forlorn hope that the president would make a surprise visit to the village.
George Ochieng Onyango, a bicycle taxi rider who has named his eight-year-old son Barack Obama and three-year-old daughter Michelle, said Obama’s visit to Kenya had triggered great excitement in the village. “This is our son. We hope he comes to see us before leaving Kenya but even if the security people don’t allow him, we know he will visit us when he leaves the presidency.”
There was a sombre interlude when Obama visited the site of the 1998 embassy bombing, which killed more than 200 Kenyans and 12 Americans. The president stepped out from the walkway with a man on each side, then walked alone to pick up a wreath of white lilies and blue and red ribbon. He laid it on a tripod in front of the memorial before stepping back and bowing his head for a moment. When he looked up, he sighed deeply and studied the names of victims carved into a brick wall in an open courtyard. He turned silently to the walkway and left alone.
Victims of the bombing urged Obama to consider their longstanding demands for compensation. Douglas Sidialo, who was blinded, said the US government should consider offering help to victims who were orphaned or injured during the attack on humanitarian grounds, saying such a gesture would demonstrate that Obama as a “son of Kenya” cared about the victims.
Although newspapers and TV stations offered blanket coverage of the trip, the big crowds that would normally have been expected on such a visit were largely absent after police blocked access to most parts of Nairobi.
The president held talks with Kenyatta at the state house in Nairobi, promising additional funding and assistance for counter-terrorism operations against the Islamist extremist group al-Shabaab. At a subsequent press conference, Obama warned that corruption posed the biggest threat to Kenya’s economic growth and spoke candidly in defence of gay rights, a position with which Kenyatta openly disagreed.
Obama also promised Kenyans: “I’ll be back. The next time I’m back I may not be wearing a suit. The first time I came here I was in jeans and a backpack,” – a reference to his first visit, three decades ago, when he came in search of his roots.
His wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha would also return, he said, “because they have a great love for this country and its people and its beauty. And obviously I’ve got family connections.”
Obama – who heads to neighbouring Ethiopia on Sunday – expressed hope that his philanthropic work after he leaves the White House could build on his work here. “I’m not going to stop being interested in the young people of Kenya and the young people of Africa, and developing the talent and the leaders – talented leaders and entrepreneurs that are going to help make this country and the world prosper.”
The commander-in-chief also reflected on a dinner he shared with three dozen members of his extended family at a luxury hotel in Nairobi on Friday night.
“Mostly we were just catching up,” he said, prompting laughter as he went on: “I think the people of Kenya will be familiar with the need to manage family politics sometimes. In these extended families, there are cousins and uncles and aunties that show up that you didn’t know existed, but you’re always happy to meet. And there were lengthy explanations, in some cases, of the connections. But it was a wonderful time.”
Said Obama, the president’s half-uncle, was present at the dinner, a thrill he will not soon forget. He mused: “What can I say? Everyone will remember this moment. He came in and said hello and went from table to table chatting with everyone and getting to know those he has never met. The fact his first engagement in Kenya was to meet his family shows he still respects African culture.”
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