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Barack Obama begins Africa visit in Kenya

Published 24/07/2015

President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One for a trip to Kenya and Ethiopia (AP)
President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One for a trip to Kenya and Ethiopia (AP)

President Barack Obama has opened a two-nation tour of Africa focused on deepening economic and security partnerships with the continent and its people.

Mr Obama landed in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. His father was Kenyan and the trip amounts to a homecoming of sorts for Mr Obama, who is expected to spend time with family.

His agenda for Saturday includes co-hosting a US-sponsored business summit and a meeting with Kenya's president, followed by a news conference and a state dinner.

He will address the Kenyan people on Sunday before departing for Ethiopia.

Mr Obama meets on Monday with Ethiopia's president and prime minister, holds a news conference and attends a state dinner.

He addresses members of the African Union on Tuesday before heading back to Washington.

The president spent the evening reuniting with his Kenyan family, including his elderly step-grandmother who made the trip to Nairobi from her rural village.

US 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 EJ Hogendoorn, deputy programme director for Africa at the International Crisis Group.

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.

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 is 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.

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 the age of 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."

Despite the intense focus on the American leader's local roots, the White House has cast the trip as one focused on the relationship between the US and Kenya, not the president and his family. Officials say Mr Obama's agenda is heavily focused on trade and economic issues, as well as security and counterterrorism cooperation.

The president is travelling with nearly two dozen US lawmakers, along with 200 US investors attending the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha did not accompany the president.

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