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President Charms Kenya

After Air Force One landed in Kenya on July 24, President Obama went straight to a dinner he shared with three dozen members of his extended family at a luxury hotel in Nairobi.

“Mostly we were just catching up,” he said. “I think the people of Kenya will be familiar with the need to manage family politics sometimes. In these extended families, there are cousins and uncles and aunties that show up that you didn’t know existed, but you’re always happy to meet. And there were lengthy explanations, in some cases, of the connections. But it was a wonderful time.”

He was not a stranger, after all: making his first engagement in Kenya a meeting with his family shows he respects African culture.

“There’s a reason why my name is Barack Hussein Obama,” he said, addressing delegates at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. “My father came from these parts, and I have family and relatives here.”

This trip came on the heels of Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. In Kenya it raised concern from religious groups and politicians that Obama’s visit would include advocacy for gay rights. Some Kenyans planned demonstrations and protests.

He tried to steer clear of the issue until Reuters reporter Jeff Mason raised it at Obama’s joint press conference with Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta. “The state does not need to weigh in on religious doctrine,” Obama said. “The state just has to say we’re going to treat everybody equally under the law. And then everybody else can have their own opinions.”

He added: “With respect to the rights of gays and lesbians, I’ve been consistent all across Africa on this. I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law, and that they are deserving of equal protection under the law. The state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation. And I say that, recognizing that there may be people who have different religious or cultural beliefs. But the issue is, how does the state operate relative to people?”

Responding to the same questions, President Kenyatta differed with his guest and tactfully dismissed it as a non-issue in Kenya, saying that our cultures and religious beliefs do not condone gay or lesbian sex.

At the Global Entrepreneurship Summit Obama shared a stage with innovators, including Kenya’s Judith Owigar, whose company offers technology training to young women in deprived areas.

Obama told the summit that Africa’s time as a place of innovation had come, with young people, and especially women, poised to transform the continent.

He offered the young entrepreneurs start-up capital. “We’ve secured more than $1 billion in new commitments from banks, foundations, philanthropists, all to support entrepreneurs like you,” he said.

“Second, we’re connecting you with the world’s top business leaders and innovators.” More than 200 seasoned investors and entrepreneurs attended the summit to support young and emerging talents.

Obama turned to the need to step up support for women entrepreneurs: “We’re launching three women’s entrepreneurial centers: one in Zambia, one opening later this year here in Nairobi, and I’m proud to announce that the third center will be located in Mali.”

He was visiting a region in fright from terrorist attacks by Al-Shabab. Kenyans condemned the U.S.-based Cable News Network for calling the region a “hotbed of terror.”

In talks at State House in Nairobi with Kenya’s President Kenyatta, Obama promised additional funding for counter-terrorism operations.

In an address to Kenyans at Safaricom Stadium, Obama warned that corruption posed the worst threat to Kenya’s economic growth. He praised the role of traditional civil societies in caring for the poor.

Obama’s visit has been the highlight of the year in Kenya. If we will change how we treat each other, particularly our women and youth, and how we raise the country to prosperity through good governance, it will be attributed to this visit and President Obama’s words: “No society can thrive on exclusion.”

Image: President  Obama greets embassy staff and their families at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, July 25. • Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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