As he walked up the stage of the Kasarani stadium Sunday, waving to an ecstatic crowd estimated at 4,500, President Barack Obama looked right at home. In a way, he was home.
As the first American president to visit Kenya and the first Kenyan-American to become the President of the United States, the highlight of Mr Obama’s three-day visit was a speech to the people of Kenya about progress, promise and the challenges to the country’s future.
Mr Obama said that corruption, tribalism, cronyism and gender inequalities were all potential barriers to progress and that Kenya’s path to progress required important choices for any society including accountability, inclusiveness and transparency.
While he acknowledged there were daily limitations and frustrations, he stressed that Kenya had come a long way in just a short period.
The country has moved from being the one-party state it was to a multi-party system, from a nation deeply divided along tribal lines to a more united one, from a former colony to an investment hub for regional trade.
“There are no limits to what you can achieve,” Obama said addressing a young, standing crowd on the arena floor made up largely of Kenyan university students and school-aged kids.
Unlike his grandfather who had to work for a colonialist power and his father who had to go abroad to further his education, Mr Obama said that because of Kenya’s progress, ambitious young Kenyans no longer needed to look outside to get an education.
“You can build your future right here, right now,” he said.
He commended Kenya for becoming an engine for innovation and entrepreneurship, for being a leader of green energy on the continent, for achieving food security to meet the demand of its people and for progress in health building capacity.
Mr Obama, however, acknowledged that many challenges remained to be tackled for Kenya to reach its full potential. Talking about corruption he said it was a “cancer” costing 250,000 jobs per year and limiting the development of the country as a whole.
Where democracy and the rule of law was concerned, Obama warned that, despite progress, civil society that gives voice to the people and shines a light on the country’s problems must be protected and the rule of law upheld, things that require not only laws on the books but also commitment of every citizen. He also stressed the importance of unity and overcoming ethnic, tribal and religious divisions for the country’s future.
“Politics that’s based solely on tribe and ethnicity is doomed to tear a country apart,” he said to a cheering crowd.
Speaking of the multiple recent deadly terror attacks that have plagued Kenya, Obama urged Kenyans to own their destiny, but ensured that America would stand by Kenya.
“Kenya is at a crossroads, a moment filled with peril and enormous promise,” he said.
As a friend of Kenyan wanting the country to succeed, Obama said tough choices have to be made. Using the American people as an example, he said they were not perfect but in fact struggle to improve, work to the highest values and kept on trying.
“We can’t be complacent. We have to push and work towards the future to confront the dark corners of our own mess,” he said.
As he spoke to a crowd made up of many different shades of black and brown, some wearing elaborate hats and traditional African attires, some wearing headscarves and conservative long dresses and some wearing business suits, Obama said that diversity should be seen as a strength, not a weakness. He also urged Kenyans to choose peace and reconciliation over hatred and blame games saying that’s what violent extremists tried to exploit.
Citing Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, he said that people must be judged by “the content of their character” not the colour of their skins, their ethnic or tribal origins, who they love or what god they worship in the true Kenyan ‘Harambee’ spirit.
Regarding gender inequality, Mr Obama said that treating women as second-class citizens was a bad tradition and needed to change because letting half the team out of the field to play a game was stupid and made no sense. He also condemned genital mutilation and forced marriage saying these traditions had no place in the 21st century.
“Just because something is part of your past doesn’t define your future,” he said.
All these issues, he said, were not special to Kenya but obstructed progress in many countries where they were they tolerated.
Encouraging Kenyans to be committed to the rule of law, to stand shoulder to shoulder against terrorism, to be inclusive of diversity, Obama reiterated his promise that the US will be a partner to a Kenya which was “on the move” and “poised to play a bigger role in time”.
Including an inspirational message for Kenyans, Obama said: “The future of Africa is up to Africans Ultimately we are each responsible for our own destiny.”