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Obama returns to Kenya, reunites with father’s family

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U.S. President Barack Obama poses for a photograph with Joan Wamaitha, 8, who gave him flowers on his arrival at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, on Friday.
AP
U.S. President Barack Obama poses for a photograph with Joan Wamaitha, 8, who gave him flowers on his arrival at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, on Friday.

For the first time as U.S. President, a long-sought visit by a country that considers him a local son.

Fulfilling the hopes of millions of Kenyans, Barack Obama returned to his father’s homeland on Friday for the first time as U.S. President, a long-sought visit by a country that considers him a local son.

The President spent the evening reuniting with his Kenyan family, including his elderly step-grandmother who made the trip to the capital of Nairobi from her rural village. U.S. and Kenyan flags lined the main road from Nairobi’s airport, and billboards heralding Mr. Obama’s trip dotted the city.

“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.

Barely knew his father

Mr. Obama’s link to Kenya is a father he barely knew, but whose influence can nonetheless be seen in his son’s presidency.

Mr. Obama has spoken candidly about growing up without his Kenyan-born father and feeling “the weight of that absence.” A White House initiative to support young men of colour who face similar circumstances has become a project dear to Mr. Obama, one he plans to continue after leaving the White House.

Overcoming corruption

In Africa, Mr. Obama has used his late 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 centrepiece 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,” Mr. 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.”

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.

Died in car crash

The elder Obama left Hawaii when his 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. Mr. Obama’s father died in a car crash in 1982, at age 46.

“I didn’t have a dad in the house,” Mr. 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 realise it at the time.”

Mr. 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, Mr. Obama wrote that at the time of his death, “my father remained a mystery to me, both more and less than a man.”