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Obama Talks Candidly About Flaws In Kenya's Society


In Ethiopia today, a military band struck up a special tune for the arriving guest of honor.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).


INSKEEP: "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played for President Obama, who's on a short African tour. He'd just come from Kenya, the land of his father's birth. There, President Obama took advantage of his Kenyan heritage to speak candidly about what he saw as flaws in Kenyan society. And he also wrestled publicly with the tension between his official role and his family ties to that country. NPR's Gregory Warner reports.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Barack Obama often refers to himself as African-American. But for an adoring crowd at a stadium in Nairobi, he clarified his hyphen.


BARACK OBAMA: And of course, I'm the first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States.


WARNER: Obama has had a mixed relationship with his Kenyan heritage. He didn't grow up with his father. He's called the relationship an abstraction. But on Sunday, he recalled his first trip to Nairobi three decades earlier. He was filling out a form at the airport, and one of the staff recognized his name. She'd worked with his father.


B. OBAMA: That was the first time that my name meant something.


B. OBAMA: Right? And that it was recognized.

WARNER: This weekend's visit aimed to deepen U.S. alliances with Kenya on trade, terrorism and wildlife protection. But Obama also asserted an insider's right to take Kenyan society to task. Ethnic favoritism, he said, was crippling the country's social cohesion.


B. OBAMA: A politics that's based solely on tribe and ethnicity is a politics that's doomed to tear a country apart.


B. OBAMA: It is a failure, a failure of imagination.

WARNER: And he criticized traditional views on the role of women. He said it led to under-education of girls and lack of prosecution for rape.


B. OBAMA: Treating women and girls as second-class citizens, those are bad traditions. They need to change.


B. OBAMA: They're holding you back.

WARNER: Outside the stadium, I met Laimani Bidali, a women's activist. She said Obama's critique was timely. Kenyan culture, she said, is too often used as an excuse to abuse women and deny women rights.

LAIMANI BIDALI: It's all to do with culture. It's all, culturally we don't do that. Culturally, women should be in the kitchen. Culturally - so I was so happy. I was like finally, we don't have to use that as an excuse anymore.

WARNER: Joan Mworia, a hotel entrepreneur, said Obama's message was more effective because he showed such pride in his Kenyan roots.

JOAN MWORIA: It's so honoring, and also it encourages us. And every boy who hears that message, it gives them such hope.

WARNER: But if President Obama honored his Kenyan-ness this weekend, he also paid heed to its obligations, like the obligation to help one's kin. And even as the president critiqued the politics of tribalism and nepotism, he begged forgiveness from his own relatives for not taking the time to visit their ancestral village. Obama has come under criticism here in Kenya for rejecting that cultural injunction to spread one's success, to use one's privileged position to help the ancestral home community.


B. OBAMA: I'm more restricted, ironically, as president of the United States than I am as - than I will be as a private citizen in terms of some of the hands-on direct help that I'd like to give.

WARNER: Obama promised to come back to Kenya.


B. OBAMA: The next time I'm back, I may not be wearing a suit.

WARNER: But as a private citizen, he also wouldn't be wearing the constraints that he has as president. His half-sister, Auma Obama, tried to lay claim to that private Obama in a speech later in a mix of English and Swahili.


AUMA OBAMA: He gets us. (Speaking Swahili). He's one of us.

WARNER: But she said, we're happy to share Barack Obama with the world. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.
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