President Barack Obama is heading back to his ancestral homeland.
A couple of decades ago, Obama traveled to Kenya, the birthplace of his estranged father, to learn about his heritage. On Thursday evening, he left Washington to make the trip again. And when he arrives on Friday, he’ll become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the East African nation.
Over the course of four days, Obama will travel both to Kenya and Ethiopia, starting in Nairobi for the annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit and ending in Addis Ababa, where the African Union is headquartered. The trip is peppered with firsts: the first time Obama has traveled to Kenya as commander-in-chief and the first time a sitting president has visited Ethiopia. His speech before the African Union will also be the first time a sitting American president addresses the body.
The explicit purpose of the trip is for Obama to participate in the annual gathering of entrepreneurs, business leaders, and government officials, of which he is co-chair, and to engage with African leaders. Throughout the trip he will participate in a number of bilateral meetings and press conferences. He will participate in a civil society event, meet with government officials, and address the Kenyan people directly.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice said Wednesday he will not have time to visit the village where his family is rooted, but will make time to meet with family members while he’s in Kenya. Rice also said the trip will offer President Obama an opportunity to advance the U.S.’s trade and investment relationship with Africa, call for greater human rights protections and transparency in government, and highlight American efforts to increase opportunities for the next generation of Africans.
“This is an opportunity not only to support that Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which is something the president is deeply committed to,” Rice said. “But, it’s also an opportunity to strengthen and deepen our relationship to Africa.”
But for many in Kenya, the historic trip feels like an opportunity to welcome home their American brother, a man whose face has been painted on the sides of buildings and whose name resonates from villages to city centers. “They take it really personally,” a café owner told the Associated Press.
While Obama’s will largely focus on economic issues like trade and investments while he’s in Kenya, human rights activists are urging the president to address some serious concerns raised by those on the ground. Jedidah Waruhiu, of Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights said on a conference call Wednesday she hopes that Obama uses his voice to “speak truth to human rights.”
Obama is also expected to address the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights in Kenya. Earlier this week, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta called LGBT rights a “non-issue” that’s “not on our agenda at all” ahead of the visit by Obama.
“We as a country, as a continent, are faced with much more issues which we would want to engage the U.S. and all our partners with,” Kenyatta said.
If pressed, however, Obama isn’t likely to shy away from the topic. When Obama traveled to Senegal in 2013, he advocated for universal rights for LGBT folks to the dismay of his host. Ambassador Rice hinted Wednesday that if asked to address the in Kenya, Obama will speak openly. “This is not something that we think is a topic we reserve for certain parts of the world and not others,” she said.
“We always—not just in Africa, but around the world—when we are traveling to countries where we have concerns about the rule of law, human rights, corruption, whatever…we make those concerns known publicly and privately,” Rice said later on Wednesday.
The issue, Waruhiu said, is “emotive” in Kenya and activists worry about potential backlash if Obama goes too far on LGBT rights.
“However much he feels strongly about this issue—this is an issue that will cloud other important issues like security and trade any the country, because any other good thing he says or does in the country will be whitewashed with the whole issue of LGBTI issues,” she said.
The trip to Kenya and Ethiopia will also provide an opportunity for President Obama to discuss countering terror groups like al Shabaab, which has a stronghold in the region, and the ongoing crisis in South Sudan. Both activists and government leaders are looking forward to the pending discussions on counterterror strategies, promoting trade, and providing opportunity during Obama’s visit, though the president’s tone throughout his time in Kenya will be closely monitored.
“He needs to earn the Obama mania a little,” said Brian Dooley, Human Rights First’s Director of Human Rights Defenders on a conference call. “He can’t just turn up and expect to be welcomed as a prodigal son.”
“Some people are not happy he’s taken so long as president to visit Kenya,” he added Wednesday. “He needs to, I think, earn a bit of popularity and not take it for granted.”