10 things to know about US President Barack Obama's ties to Kenya

A Kenyan woman touching a painting depicting a dove between US President Barack Obama (left) and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi.
A Kenyan woman touching a painting depicting a dove between US President Barack Obama (left) and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi.PHOTO: AFP

Mr Barack Obama's visit to Kenya and Ethiopia this week is the first time a US President is visiting the two African nations.

But the spotlight is on Kenya where Mr Obama's father was born and buried, and where his visit has been billed as a homecoming by a native son. Mr Obama had visited Kenya three times in the past but never as US President.

Here are 10 things to know about Mr Obama's ties to Kenya:

1. His father, Barack Obama Sr., was born in Kogelo, a rural village in western Kenya. He left for studies on a scholarship in the United States where he met a white woman, Ann Dunham, at the University of Hawaii. The couple got married but divorced when the younger Obama was two years old. His father returned to Kenya where he died in a car crash in Nairobi in 1982. Mr Obama never really knew his father, whom he met only once when he was 10, but he felt a connection that eventually took him to Kenya in 1987 in search of his roots.


2. During his first visit to Kenya, he spent several weeks sleeping on the sofa in the living room of his half sister Auma, who taught at the University of Nairobi, and meeting the many relatives of the extended family. He travelled to his father's home village and met his grandfather's last wife Sarah, whom he called "Granny" even though there was no blood ties.

3. Mr Said Obama, the president's 49-year-old uncle who is the son of Mr Obama's late grandfather and his step-grandmother - remembers his nephew's visit in 1987. "Barack used to come here, sneak into the village without people noticing. We were in Nairobi driving in the matatus (mini-buses), going to places like Mathare (a slum), jumping over sewers, and nobody noticed," he said. "He calls me uncle; I call him Barry... That's not to say I don't see him as a president, only that our relationship started much earlier than his presidency."

4. While his visit to Kenya as president is aimed at strengthening security and economic ties, Mr Obama will spend some private time with family members. "Just as anybody is curious about their heritage, visiting Kenya provides him an opportunity to make that personal connection," said Ms Valerie Jarrett, a senior aide and family friend of Mr Obama.

5. During his last trip in 2006 as a US senator, he visited Kogelo. This time, however, he will not visit the village due to "time and logistical reasons".

6. Mr Obama's step-grandmother said she would not feel bad if he does not visit her. The 94-year-old said he is visiting Kenya "to discharge his duty". "He is a son here... I cannot be angered by him not coming to see me."

7. Through more than six years in office for Mr Obama, Kenya has been a complicated part of his political persona. Known for a youthful memoir exploring his Kenyan roots, Mr Obama has been celebrated as a son of Africa who reached the pinnacle of power. But he also found himself besieged by a conspiracy theory that he had actually been born in Kenya and was therefore ineligible to be president - a theory he felt compelled to dispel by marching into the White House briefing room in 2011 with his birth certificate from Hawaii.

8. He had stayed away from Kenya until now, unwilling to provoke the obvious political circus that would have ensued. During his first term, he spent about 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa, and on the other side of the continent from his father's home. Some critics said that the first president with African roots was doing less for the continent than the white president he succeeded.

9. With re-election behind him, Mr Obama has shown renewed interest in Africa in his second term. He hosted a summit meeting in Washington for African leaders last year and just pushed a renewal of an African trade preference programme through Congress.

10. Ahead of his visit, preparations were in full swing in Kenya to welcome the return of a native son. Stalls displayed T-shirts bearing images of the US President. His image could be seen on billboards and buses, and also on this month's edition of a Kenya Airways magazine. Some Kenyans even downloaded a rousing segment from his speech as their cellphone ringtone.