Friday 23 February 2018

Obama calls for break with past and urges Kenya to fulfil promise

Crowds line the motorcade route as U.S. President Barack Obama travels to deliver remarks at an indoor stadium in Nairobi
Crowds line the motorcade route as U.S. President Barack Obama travels to deliver remarks at an indoor stadium in Nairobi

Zoe Flood in Nairobi

US President Barack Obama has called on Kenyans, and especially the country's youth, to seize the moment to take their country forward, in a stirring speech that brought to an end his first trip as president to his father's homeland.

"Kenya is at a crossroads, at a moment filled with peril but also enormous promise," said the US leader to a crowd of 4,500 students, officials, civil society leaders and other guests packed into the indoor arena of Nairobi's Kasarani stadium.

"When it comes to the people of Kenya, particularly the youth, I believe there is no limit to what you can achieve," Mr Obama added in an address that was broadcast live across the country, noting that young Africans were no longer constrained by colonialism, nor should they feel the need to go overseas to realise their dreams.

"I'm confident that your future is going to be written across this country and this continent by young people like you," said the first black US president, who has created a youth leadership programme for Africa, where around 60pc of the population is below the age of 35.


To resounding cheers, he added: "Because of Kenya's progress and your potential, you can build your future right here, right now."

But he strongly reminded the Kenyan people of the many challenges that the country faces, ranging from a "serious threat" from Somalia-based militants al-Shabaab, an unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity and corruption that he called "an anchor that weighs you down".

He also warned against ethnic divisions and the discrimination against minority groups, mentioning that both Kenya and the United States had minority Muslim communities, and he urged Kenyans to overcome such obstacles.

The choice of venue itself reflected one of these concerns. Last year, hundreds of ethnic Somalis were allegedly detained in the stadium complex as part of a security operation that followed a series of attacks in Nairobi and Mombasa.

Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists based in neighbouring Somalia have carried out a string of attacks in Kenya that have left hundreds dead, including at least 67 in an attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in September 2013 and nearly 150 in an attack on a university earlier this year.

In a speech at once both forceful and informal, Mr Obama told of his grandfather's time as a cook for the British in the colonial era and of his own experiences visiting Kenya for the first time nearly 30 years ago.

He recalled eating the local dishes sukuma wiki and ugali (greens and maize meal), much to the delight of the crowd.

His half-sister Auma Obama, who introduced the president, observed that she had picked him up at the airport on his first visit in a battered Volkswagen Beetle, only to have him give her a ride into town on Friday evening in the presidential vehicle known as "the Beast".

During a large segment of his speech devoted to calling for equal rights for women and girls, much of the audience cheered in agreement. "Kenya will not succeed if it treats its women and girls as second-class citizens," said Mr Obama, decrying practices such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation as "bad traditions".

He also stressed that the education of girls should be prioritised.

Paul Odero, a 25-year-old business administration student at the Presbyterian University in Nairobi, said as he left the venue that he was feeling "very inspired".

"It's good for people like us to hear this because we are doing our degrees so that we can make changes in the country," he said.

As he left the stadium George Muringi, 17, a scholarship student, said: "It's really a challenge to us to take up what he is saying."

Irish Independent

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