Former US president Barack Obama recounted fond memories of his family home in Kenya on a visit Monday to launch a state-of-the-art youth centre run by his half-sister.
Obama is on his first trip to Kenya since he was president in 2015, when he was unable to visit his ancestral home as his jet was too big to land in the western city of Kisumu, he recalled.
“It is a joy to be back with so many people who are family to me, and so many people who claim to be family. Everybody’s a cousin!” he joked, to hoots of laughter from the audience.
After a visit to the home of his step-grandmother Sarah Obama in the village of Kogelo, where his father was born and is buried, Obama recalled his first trip to Kenya at the age of 27.
From Nairobi he took first a “very slow train” and then a bus with “some chickens in my lap and some sweet potatoes digging into my side”. Then he had to pile into a matatu — a minibus taxi — “even more crowded than the bus”, before a long walk to “Mama” Sarah’s house.
He remembered having to catch a chicken for dinner, which he was “a little squeamish” to kill himself, visiting his father’s grave and bathing outdoors.
“And I looked up at the stars and… it gave me a sense of satisfaction that no five-star hotel could ever provide,” he said.
Boosting Kenya’s youth
Obama was speaking at the launch of the Sauti Kuu (Swahili for “Strong Voices”) centre set up by his half-sister Auma Obama.
He said that looking back on those memories, he “couldn’t be prouder of what my sister has built”.
Auma said the state-of-the-art centre would give local youth access to books, internet and sporting activities.
They will also be able to benefit from classes on work ethics, civic education, environmental conservation and financial literacy.
The centre includes an international standard size football pitch sponsored by the German ministry of development cooperation, a basketball court funded by the Giants of Africa Foundation and other facilities, including a library and IT lab.
“The reason I put this centre up is for my community to realise how wealthy they are. I don’t want my community to be beggars… let us start depending on ourselves,” said Auma.
Obama said the centre would empower and educate young Kenyans so they could hold their leaders to account and do “remarkable, world-changing things”.
Hailing “real progress” in Kenya in recent years, he highlighted corruption, tribalism and rocky elections as challenges that remain.
Upon his arrival in Kenya on Sunday, Obama paid courtesy calls on President Uhuru Kenyatta and main opposition leader Raila Odinga, who have mended fences after a deadly election season last year.
Obama is linked to his Kenyan family via his father Barack senior, a pipe-smoking economist who Obama has admitted he “never truly” knew.
He walked out when Obama was just two and died in a car crash in Nairobi in 1982, aged 46.
Obama senior had worked in the government of Jomo Kenyatta, who led Kenya at independence from Britain until his death 14 years later in 1978.
The two men did not get on well, with Kenyatta — the father of Kenya’s current president Uhuru Kenyatta — sacking Obama senior, and blackballing him for further government jobs, an ostracisation that would help fuel alcoholism.