Despite longstanding family ties to Kenya, U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Nairobi—the first by a serving U.S. President—has been largely an official affair, defined by bilateral meetings and entrepreneurship conferences.
That all changed on Sunday, when he addressed Kenyan youth at a sports stadium and spoke from the heart. As his convoy turned into Nairobi’s SafariCom Arena, he finally received the exuberant welcome that security precautions had all but denied him since his arrival two nights prior.
Crowds of men, women and children, some waving flags and banners welcoming him back to his father’s homeland, thronged the highway. Inside the arena, some 4,500 students, government officials and civil society leaders jumped to their feet as Obama’s half sister, Auma Obama, introduced a man who really had no need for introduction. By the time Obama took the podium, the crowd was ecstatic. “I love you!” shouted a member of the audience. “I love you too,” Obama said to the crowd.
Part state address, part commencement speech, Obama’s 40-minute talk started with a personal reminiscence of his first trip to Kenya in 1998, when he was a young law student seeking to learn more about his roots.
On that trip, he said, the airline lost his bags. “That doesn’t happen on Air Force One,” he joked.
He spoke of Kenya’s turbulent history, and of his grandfather’s job as a domestic servant for a colonial family, who, even as a grown man, was called “boy.” He referenced his father’s disappointment upon returning to Kenya after an education in the United States “in part because he couldn’t reconcile the ideas that he had for his young country with the hard realities that had confronted him. ” Those stories “show the enormous barriers that so many Kenyans faced just one or two generations ago.”
Kenya had changed, Obama noted. “A young, ambitious Kenyan today should not have to do what my grandfather did, and serve a foreign master. You don’t need to do what my father did, and leave your home in order to get a good education and access to opportunity. Because of Kenya’s progress, because of your potential, you can build your future right here, right now,” he said, to an explosion of applause.
But it is still up to Kenyans to make sure that the trajectory of history continues to moved towards progress and opportunity, so that this new generation would not be disappointed like his father’s. Kenya, Obama said, “is at a crossroads, a moment filled with peril, but also enormous promise.”
To achieve that promise, Obama offered some hard-hitting prescriptions. Outdated traditions, the oppression of women, child marriages, ethnic tensions and the “cancer of corruption” must be done away with, he said. Ending corruption doesn’t start and end with tough laws, he added. “It requires a commitment by the entire nation—leaders and citizens—to change habits and to change culture.
To the surprise and delight of many in the audience, Obama spent several minutes speaking on women’s equality, girls’ right to an education, and even female genital mutilation, which is still practiced in some parts of Kenya. “Treating women and girls as second-class citizens, those are bad traditions,” he said. “They need to change. They’re holding you back.”
To drive home his point, he repeated himself. “These traditions may date back centuries; they have no place in the 21st century.”
Sandra Chebet, a 16-year-old student in the red and green trimmed blazer of Nairobi’s Maryhill Girls High School, said Obama’s stance on tradition was her favorite part. “For a long time people have said that women could not be successful in business and in government because of their traditional roles. Now I know that even though I am a girl, I can also be the best pediatrician. Actually, I knew that already, but after Obama’s speech, now everyone in Kenya knows that too.”
Obama also emphasized a need for inclusivity, referencing some of the government’s ham-fisted attempts to curb terrorism by isolating and alienating minority Muslim groups in Kenya.
The Somali terror group al Shabaab, which has killed hundreds of Kenyans in terror attacks over the past several years, is a real threat, said Obama. But “it is important to remember that violent extremists want us to turn against one another… Extremists who prey on distrust must be defeated by communities who stand together and stand for something different.”
He cited the American experience with its own Muslim minority, saying “those minorities make enormous contributions to our countries. These are our brothers; they are our sisters. And so in both our countries, we have to reject calls that allow us to be divided.”
Fifteen year-old Hamdi Ibrahim, draped in a white headcovering that went down to her waist, was delighted. “To see him standing and defending Muslims makes me feel empowered, and makes me feel that I have a support system.”
Upon departing the stage at the conclusion of his speech, Obama was thronged with fans waving camera phones and seeking selfies with the president.
Twenty-one year old medical student James Mugo managed to shake Obama’s hand, something he says he will remember for the rest of his life. “He held my hand for, like, five seconds. It was electrifying.”
Mugo, like many Africans, is no stranger to well-meaning lectures from Western leaders who say they know what Africa needs to progress. But this time it was different. “We heard some hard truths about Kenya’s problems, but it was not with chastisement or from a position of superiority,” says Mugo. “The fact that this time the advice was coming from someone who knows Kenya, who is of Kenya, that means it will have a much stronger impact.”
He has no doubt that Kenyan youth will take the messages to heart. “Obama’s speech has given us all great encouragement to be better as a nation,” he said, before melting back into a crowd of young Kenyans already starting to compare their selfies with the American president.