'My name belonged and so I belonged' - Barack Obama is about to return to his 'homeland'

The president has visited Kenya before, but never as president.

WHEN BARACK OBAMA visited Kenya for the first time nearly 30 years ago, he was astonished that an airport worker recognised his last name.

It was a striking experience for the future president.

He was a young man struggling to understand how a country that he had never seen and a Kenyan family that he barely knew had shaped his identity.

Kenya Obama A mural of Barack Obama in Kenya ahead of a visit by the US President. AP Photo / Ben Curtis AP Photo / Ben Curtis / Ben Curtis

“My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances, and grudges I did not yet understand,” Obama wrote in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” about the airport encounter.

This week, Obama will make his first visit to Kenya as US president, a trip that will bear little resemblance to the 1988 one, when he arrived aboard commercial flight and his luggage got lost.

Now, Air Force One will take Obama to a country where children, roads and schools now bear his name, and the world leader is seen as a local son.

Yet traveling with the trappings of the presidency appears likely to diminish the fulfillment of a trip to his father’s homeland.

“I’ll be honest with you, visiting Kenya as a private citizen is probably more meaningful to me than visiting as president because I can actually get outside of a hotel room or a conference centre,” he said last week, adding that his trip still would be “symbolically important.”

Malik Obama Malik Obama, half-brother of President Barack Obama. AP Photo / Ben Curtis AP Photo / Ben Curtis / Ben Curtis

Security concerns and the logistics of presidential travel will keep Obama at a distance from most Kenyans. He will skip a visit to Kogelo, the rural village in western Kenya where his father was born and buried, and where his stepgrandmother and other family members still live.

Fox News has already criticised Kenyan authorities ahead of the visit for giving details of the president’s travel plans, something they described as a “stunning breach of protocol”.

Obama’s two days of events will be confined to Nairobi, the capital where he will meet with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, and speak to civil society leaders. On Sunday, he will go to Ethiopia.

Despite the limits on Obama’s movement and interactions with the Kenyan people, his visit is highly anticipated in the East African nation. Even as a US senator, he was greeted by cheering crowds when he made his last visit to Kenya, in 2006.

Uhuru Kenyatta A painting depicting the Obama family and step-grandmother Sarah Obama. AP Photo / Khalil Senosi AP Photo / Khalil Senosi / Khalil Senosi

Ahead of Obama’s arrival Friday, some Kenyans have adopted a rousing segment of an Obama speech as their cellphone ringtone. US and Kenyan flags lined the road leading from Nairobi’s main airport.

Obama’s visit is like “a brother coming back,” said Nelly Ngugu, customer relations manager at a Nairobi cafe.

Before Obama’s travel plans were announced, there had been some disappointment that the US president, who has written and spoken emotionally of his Kenyan roots, had not returned since taking office. Analysts questioned whether America’s first black president was missing an opportunity to give Africa more prominence in US foreign policy.

Much of Obama’s international focus in his first term was on strengthening ties with Asia and trying to reset US policy in the Middle East. His only visit to sub-Saharan Africa during his first four years in office was a short stop in Ghana.

At the time, there was persistent and inaccurate speculation that he was born in Kenya, not the United States.

Obama’s re-election raised renewed hopes for a visit to Kenya, but the political situation there complicated those plans.

Kenya Obama Photograph of Barack Obama Sr. hangs on the wall of the president's step-grandmother Sarah Obama. (File, 2008) AP AP

Kenyatta, the son of the country’s first president, was elected president in 2013, but faced charges in the International Criminal Court stemming from his alleged role in stoking ethnic violence following Kenya’s troubled 2007 election.

“The timing was not right for me as the president of the United States to be visiting Kenya when those issues are still being worked on and, hopefully, at some point resolved,” Obama said of his decision to pass over Kenya in favour of South Africa, Tanzania and Senegal during a 2013 trip to Africa.

The charges against Kenyatta were ultimately dropped, clearing the way for Obama to finally visit his father’s home country as president. With his arrival now imminent, the earlier disappointment appears to have faded, overtaken by anticipation and national pride.

Kenya Obama Kenyan artist Evans Yegon, known as Yegonizer, poses by one of two paintings of President Barack Obama. AP Photo / Ben Curtis AP Photo / Ben Curtis / Ben Curtis

In Kogelo, the Obama family’s home village, the family’s aging matriarch said even she would not feel bad if the president did not visit her.

Sarah Obama, who Obama referred to as “Granny” in his memoir, said the president was coming to Kenya “to discharge his duty.

“He is a son here,” said the elder Obama, who was the second wife of the president’s grandfather. “I cannot be angered by him not coming to see me.”

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy

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Associated Foreign Press
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