Ululations and screams rent the air in Kenya’s capital Nairobi and other cities around the country on Friday night when television screens beamed images of US President Barack Obama emerging from Air Force One and literally springing down the steps onto Kenyan soil.
The long-awaited moment was finally here, and history was being made: President Obama, the son of a Kenyan, making his first visit to the country as president; and Kenya receiving a first sitting president of the United States of America.
Having described the trip as significant a few days before he set off, President Obama’s infectious grin as he embraced his host, President Uhuru Kenyatta, and shook hands with government officials in the welcoming party, told of a man happy to be “home.”
But it was the warm hug reserved for his half-sister Auma Obama, who waited patiently at the end of the line, that best symbolised his strong ties with Kenya. Brother and sister held hands, stared into each other’s eyes, then locked in an embrace lasting a few seconds, as cameras clicked away.
Auma was then invited to ride in his official vehicle, popularly known as “The Beast,” and the next images released to the media were of the family dinner at a city hotel.
For Kenyans, many of whom had braved the Nairobi chill to catch a glimpse of his motorcade, Obama had demonstrated, without uttering a word, that this was indeed a special personal moment.
At his first public engagement — the official opening of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Gigiri, Nairobi — President Obama once again charmed Kenyans with his first words: “Niaje wasee? Mko poa?” (Kiswahili slung for “How are you guys? You okay?”), to rousing cheers.
“I’m proud to be the first US president to visit Kenya. And obviously this is personal for me. There’s a reason why my name is Barack Hussein Obama. My father came from these parts. I have family and relatives here. And in my previous visits, walking in the streets of Nairobi, I have come to know the warmth and the spirit of the Kenyan people,” he said, before embarking on the official business of the summit.
Both President Obama and his co-host, President Kenyatta, underlined the importance of entrepreneurship in seeking solutions to the world’s challenges.
“Entrepreneurship means ownership and self-determination. That’s why I’ve made this spirit of entrepreneurship a key part of America’s engagement with the world,” President Obama said, announcing that the SPARK initiative had raised more than $1 billion for entrepreneurship.
President Kenyatta said young people in Africa were transforming the continent. “The youthful sons and daughters of Africa are our incredible resource. They are reaching for a new future in which their innovation and curiosity will transform the world.”
He cited mobile money transfer service M-Pesa, “now the world’s leading mobile money platform” and M-Kopa, a Kenyan innovation that enables families to purchase affordable solar lighting, as examples of how technology is transforming lives.
The two presidents were joined on stage by three young entrepreneurs, who made presentations on their innovations— Jehiel Oliver CEO of Hello Tractor, Josiper Majic, CEO, Teddy the Guardian and Judith Owigar a co-founder of Akirachix, which trains women in entrepreneurship and technology.
“Technology is one of the fastest growing sectors in Kenya, yet women are greatly under-represented. I am working to nurture generations of women who use technology to impact their communities and create solutions,” Ms Owigar said.
The programme targets young women from the slums of Nairobi, who are taken through a one-year course in technology and entrepreneurship.
President Obama later laid a wreath at the memorial park at the site of the former US embassy that was bombed by terrorists in 1998, before holding bilateral talks with President Kenyatta and his Cabinet.