US President Barack Obama addressed Kenyans at the Safaricom Indoor Arena in Kasarani on Sunday morning beginning with a moving account of how he traced his Kenyan roots to Kogelo and achievements made in Kenya so far.
Obama remembered well the first day he landed in Kenya more than 20 years ago during which time he lost his luggage at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) and how his sister Auma Obama drove him in an old Volkswagen Beetle.
“As Auma was saying, the first time I came to Kenya, things were a little different. When I arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport, the airline had lost my bags. That doesn’t happen on Air Force One… they always have my luggage. As she said, Auma picked me up in an old Volkswagen Beetle and I think the entire stay I was here, it broke down about four or five times. We’d be on the highway, we’d have to call the jua kali; I slept on a cot in her apartment instead of eating at fancy banquets,” he recounted.
Speaking while introducing him, Auma described Obama as a down to earth man who blended right in and did justice to the saying that ‘when you go to Rome, do as the Romans do.’
“He was not lost when he first came to Kenya, he was with me and he fit right in. He ate ugali, chapati, mandazi, githeri otherwise also known as nyoyo, nyama choma, rech (fish), omena and we can go on and on and on. He ate with us on multiple tables because we are a big family as he did also this Friday as he celebrated family and for this we give him a tick, he has done very well,” she stated.
She explained that the family was really proud to be associated with the American President.
“He gets us. He is one of us and we are happy to share him with the world because he is not just ours and on behalf of our family and on behalf of all of Kenyans, I would like to thank the American people for trusting Barack who is our son,” she pointed out.
After his introduction, President Obama recalled that when he came to Kenya, he had to go through what he terms as minor inconveniences though he says these paled in comparison to the sense of belonging that came from knowing his family.
“We were drinking tea and eating ugali, sukuma wiki. So there wasn’t a lot of luxury. Sometimes the lights would go out. But you know, there was something more important than luxury on that first trip and that was a sense of being recognised and seen. I was just a young man and I was just a few years out of University and I had worked as a community organizer in Chicago, I was about to go to Law School and when I came here, in many ways I was a westerner, I was an American unfamiliar with my father and his birth place really disconnected from half of my heritage,” he said.
He explained that the first time someone recognised his name at the airport was the start of him tracing his roots to Kogelo where he met his other relatives.
“At that airport, as I was trying to find my luggage there was a woman there who worked for the airline and was helping fill up the forms and she saw my name and she looked up and asked if I was related to my father whom she had known and that was the first time that my name meant something, that I was recognised” he stated. “And over the course of several weeks I met my brothers, aunts, uncles; I travelled to Alego, the village where my family was from, I saw the graves of my father and my grandfather and I learnt things about their lives that I could never have learnt through books. In many ways, their lives offered snap shots of Kenya’s history, but they also told something about the future.” 1 | 2
He indicated that he got to know about his grandfather who was a cook during the colonial times from his belongings which he found in his house in the rural village.
“My grandfather for example was a cook for the British and as I went through some of his belongings when I went upcountry, I found a passbook that he had to carry as a domestic servant. It listed his age, his height, tribe, the number of teeth he had missing and he was referred to as a boy even though he was a grown man in that passbook,” he stated.
He stated that his grandfather was in the King’s African Rifles during the Second World War and was taken to the far reaches of the British Empire all the way to Burma and back home and that after the war, he was eventually detained for a while because he was linked to a group which was opposed to the British rule.
“Eventually he was released, he forged a home for himself and his family and earned the respect of his village and lived a life of dignity although he had a well earned reputation of being so strict that everybody was scared of him and he became estranged from part of his family and then my father came of age as Kenyans were pursuing independence and he was proud to be a part of that liberation,” he stated.
He revealed that his father also wrote quite a number of letters to universities in America for a scholarship and eventually was accepted to one college where he pursued his dream of being an economist.
“I found letters that he had written to 30 American universities asking for a chance to pursue his dream and pursue a scholarship. And ultimately, one university gave him that chance and that is the University of Hawaii,” he said.
“He would go on to get an education and return home. And here he found success as an economist, worked with the government but ultimately, he found disappointment in part because he couldn’t reconcile the ideas he had for his young country with the hard realities that confronted him and I think sometimes the history and the past tell us something about the future.”
In his speech, Obama also had kind words for Kenya’s transformation, recalling how far the country has come in democracy and development, although saying there is much more that needs to be done.
He is encouraging more progress to be made on expanding democracy, human rights to be able to achieve good governance which will spur growth in the country.
The American President further emphasised the need for everybody to intensify the fight against corruption.