NAIROBI, Kenya — The return of the long-lost son, as President Obama is widely seen by Kenyans, had all the elements of a family reunion. They hugged, they caught up, they talked about shared interests, they agreed they should get together more often and they had their sibling spats.
In his first visit as president to his father’s home country, Mr. Obama struck a relentlessly upbeat tone, declaring that “Africa is on the move,” praising progress toward democracy and economic growth and marveling over the changes he saw passing through the streets of this locked-down capital.
But he found himself at odds with his hosts over issues of democracy, human rights and same-sex marriage and gingerly tried to nudge them to change their ways. At a news conference, Mr. Obama said the fight against terrorism in Kenya should not be used to justify a crackdown on dissent and he argued that no state should discriminate against gays and lesbians, comparing it to the era of segregation of African-Americans in the United States.
“If somebody is a law-abiding citizen who is going about their business and working in a job and obeying the traffic signs and doing all the other things a good citizen is supposed to do and not harming anybody, the idea that they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong,” Mr. Obama said. “Full stop.”
Standing to his left on the lush lawn of the State House, President Uhuru Kenyatta accepted the advice on human rights without argument, saying Kenya was trying to improve its handling of the issue of security and liberty. “This issue of terrorism is new to us,” he said, “and as it is new, we learn with each and every step.”
But he flatly rejected Mr. Obama’s views on gay rights. “There are some things we must admit we don’t share, our culture, our society don’t accept,” he said. “It’s very difficult for us to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept.”
The disagreement was quickly papered over, though, as both Mr. Obama and Kenyans focused on the historic nature of his visit. While Mr. Obama came here three times before taking office, many Kenyans had bristled that he waited until the seventh year of his presidency before coming back.
Speaking at a forum on entrepreneurship, Mr. Obama expressed a strong connection to Kenya, a theme he was to elaborate on in a speech scheduled for Sunday.
“I’m proud to be the first U.S. president to visit Kenya, and obviously this is personal for me,” he said. “There’s a reason why my name’sBarack Hussein Obama. My father came from these parts. I have family and relatives here. And in my visits over the years, walking the streets of Nairobi, I’ve come to know the warmth and the spirit of the Kenyan people.”
He held out Kenya as a model in a fast-growing region. “Kenya is leading the way,” Mr. Obama said. “When I was here in Nairobi 10 years ago, it looked very different than it does today. The incredible progress that’s been made — imagine what could happen if more and more of our global leaders and global capital paid a visit and actually had a conversation as opposed to just being blinded by some of the stereotypes that have been promoted. This thing could move even faster.”
He could not, of course, get out of his armored car to wander those streets the way he did in the past. Instead, Mr. Obama’s most intimate encounter with Kenya beyond its official leadership came during a dinner Friday night at his hotel with three dozen members of his extended family. Over a buffet of Kenyan food, including chicken, fish and beef, the president heard his relatives talk about life in Kenya and he told them a little about life in the White House… READ MORE …
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