NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Barack Obama’s link to Kenya, where he began his first visit as U.S. president Friday, is a father he barely knew but whose influence can nonetheless be seen in his son’s presidency.
Obama has spoken candidly about growing up without a father and feeling “the weight of that absence.” A White House initiative to support young men of color who face similar circumstances has become a project dear to Obama, one he plans to continue after leaving the White House.
In Africa, Obama has used his late Kenyan-born father’s struggle to overcome government corruption as a way to push leaders to strengthen democracies. He’s expected to make good governance and democracy-building a centerpiece of his two days of meetings and speeches in Nairobi, as well as a stop next week in Ethiopia.
“In my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and patronage and nepotism in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career,” Obama said during a 2009 trip to Ghana, his first visit to Africa as president. “We know that this kind of corruption is still a daily fact of life for far too many.”
Air Force One touched down in Nairobi Friday night. The president was greeted by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and other officials, as well as his half-sister Auma Obama. The siblings shared a warm embrace.
Security was tight in the Kenyan capital, with helicopters circling overhead as Obama’s motorcade sped through the city. U.S. and Kenyan flags lined the main road from the airport, and billboards heralding Obama’s visit dotted the city, underscoring the excitement for a world leader considered by many here to be a local son.
“I don’t think that Kenyans think of Obama as African-American. They think of him as Kenyan-American,” said E.J. Hogendoorn, deputy program director for Africa at the International Crisis Group.
The president’s father, Barack Obama Sr., left Kenya as a young man to study at the University of Hawaii. There, he met Stanley Ann Dunham, a white woman from Kansas. They would soon marry and have a son, who was named after his father.
The elder Obama left Hawaii when he son was just two years old, first to continue his studies at Harvard, then to return to Kenya. The future president and his father would see each other just once more, when the son was 10 years old. Obama’s father died in a car crash in 1982, at age 46.
“I didn’t have a dad in the house,” Obama said last year during a White House event for My Brother’s Keeper, his initiative for young men. “I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time.”
Obama’s first trip to Kenya nearly 30 years ago was a quest to fill in the gaps in the story of his father’s life. In his memoir “Dreams From My Father,” Obama wrote that at the time of his death, “my father remained a mystery to me, both more and less than a man.”
What Obama uncovered was a portrait of a talented, but troubled man. An economist for the Kenyan government, the senior Obama clashed with then-President Jomo Kenyatta over tribal divisions and allegations of corruption. He was ultimately fired by the president, sending him into a tailspin of financial problems and heavy drinking.
The Kenyan leader Obama will meet with this weekend is the son of the president his father confronted decades ago.
Despite the high expectations in Kenya for the visit of an American leader with local roots, the White House has cast the trip as one focused on the relationship between the U.S. and Kenya, not the president and his family. Officials say Obama’s agenda is heavily focused on trade and economic issues, as well as security and counterterrorism cooperation.
The president is traveling with nearly two dozen U.S. lawmakers, along with 200 U.S. investors attending the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha did not accompany the president.
Logistical constraints will keep Obama from visiting Kogelo, the village where his father lived and is buried, on this trip. However, he is expected to see some of his family at events in Nairobi, including his 93-year-old step-grandmother, Sarah Obama.
Auma Obama, the president’s half-sister, said she believed her late father would be proud to see his son return to Kenya as American president.
“He’d be extremely proud and say, ‘Well done,'” she said in an interview with CNN. “But then he’d add, ‘But obviously, you’re an Obama.'”
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