Obama’s visit to Kenya comes off the most important month of his presidency.
History is upon us as an acclaimed umbilical homecoming beckons. Kenya will play host to the most significant “foreign” visitor to ever grace the country’s shores. US President Barack Obama will be visiting the nation of his father’s birth on July 24. The three-day tour to the land that swept the backdrop of his seminal book, Dreams from My Father, will be his first as US president—and potentially his last as leader of the free world.
Excitement in Kenya is at a fever pitch. A friend who used to work at the US Embassy in Nairobi sent over an amusing article showing how those Kenyans drunk with jubilation in the historical moment have been heard to make atypical proclamations, some bordering on the bizarre. But with such an unprecedented visit, who is to say what type of excitement in these circumstances is normal?
Upon his historical election in 2008, many expected Obama to extend his celebrations of that momentous victory into Kenya by favoring the country with his first foreign visit or at least his first sojourn on the continent. However, to do so would have been to lend a barn of fodder to those within the ranks of his opponents, eager to make the case that he was not American enough, or just simply not American at all.
What is to be said of his visit now, then? The timing is perfect. Obama is coming off the most important month of his presidency. His polls are at their highest in the last two years. The list of his vaunted recent successes include the Supreme Court’s affirmatory ruling in favor of Obamacare—his signature health care program—and same-sex marriage, Congress’ assent to his trade initiative and his conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal.
As he sweeps into the homestretch, Obama’s legacy is beginning to take shape. A definitive identity to his presidency is emerging. Many believe the substance of his tenure has begun to touch the periphery of the transformational leadership column where the likes of Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the great Abraham Lincoln reside.
Further, with respect to the two nations, US-Kenya relations have been at their best since the Kenyatta regime took office in 2013. The thawing in the frosty ties can be traced to the fact that the case against President Uhuru Kenyatta before the International Criminal Court (ICC) has collapsed, and the one against his deputy, William Ruto, appears to be on quicksand.
Until now, many Kenyans were not happy with what they felt was a double-standard on the part of the US. They were miffed on grounds that the United States had, in their opinion, the temerity to pollute the moral high ground by demanding that Kenya go through with the cases before the ICC, yet the US had itself refused to ratify the Rome Statute.
However, the Obama administration’s position was judgmatic. On the one hand, the optics of proximity were not kind, considering it would not augur well for the US—both domestically and internationally—to be seen as closely associated with a government believed to be led by or shielding potential perpetrators of crimes against humanity. On the other, Kenya itself triggered the intercession of the ICC, and the US argued that it was merely urging the country to fulfill its treaty obligations in line with customary international law and relations.
Global Entrepreneurship Summit
Obama will visit two African countries on his trip: Kenya and Ethiopia. He will tour the latter last, becoming the first US president to set foot on Ethiopian soil. This is very pivotal, and accordingly, it ought to overshadow his Kenyan stay, which will be ushered in by the fetching Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
The importance of the convention—the first Global Entrepreneurship Summit to be held in Sub-Saharan Africa—cannot be gainsaid. But the subtext, especially from the perspective of Kenyans, is unassailable.
No, Obama’s visit is not most compelling because he is the first black US president. That is of course profound and memorable. However, Kenya has played host to many presidents with insignia of firsts draped across their diplomatic lapels. It is also not merely estimable because of a connection to Kenya that may now be viewed as being only academic—after all, isn’t everyone essentially from the African continent? Obama has Irish heritage, and although he had the warmest of welcomes when he visited the Emerald Isle a few years ago, Kenyans customarily view his standing differently, in a very nuanced way that is difficult to explain and discern.
In essence, the arresting cultural root connection is palpably viewed as being so deep as to subsume furnished modern constructs. Thus, cretinous birthers might take offense and try to find ammunition in the statement: Barack Obama is a son of Kenya. Yet verily I tell you, he was not born in the land of his father. It is just that culturally in Kenya, and more particularly among his father’s Luo people, the notion of where one is from has little, if anything, to do with where one is born—a Western immigration law modernism—and more to do with the underlying legacy of one’s heritage.
Hence, for example, upon the demise of a forlorn and worldly abandoned fellow Luo—however obscure that person’s life and achievements, and regardless of how tenuous his links to the community may have been—the community would sooner find a charter to the moon to bring the prodigal back home to rest in peace with his forefathers and ancestors. Indeed, in spite of the opinion or beliefs to the contrary of the person in question or even of the prevailing members of the community, such is the depth of the root of the bond at play that the precept cannot be broken willy-nilly; even by those who forsake the community. It is a kindred ancestral edict that transcends the individual and the people compelled to bring home their stranded own.
In essence, Obama might be the most powerful man in the world, and there is much he can summon by the shrug of his shoulders. But the warm embrace of his father’s country will never be his to call.
So is Obama really American? Absolutely, in all senses of the word. Yet if the US and every region of the world were to reject him, paraphrasing the poet Rupert Brooke in The Soldier, “there is a corner” of his father’s people’s land that shall forever be his. And it has little to do with choice. That is why when he visits Kenya, Obama will be greeted with warm wide-open arms and welcomed home.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.