In Final Speech, Obama Asks Kenyans to Build New Traditions

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Kenyans listen to President Obama's speech at Safaricom Indoor Arena in Nairobi on July 26, 2015.Photo: SAUL LOEB

In his last major appearance before departing Kenya for Ethiopia today, President Obama addressed a rapturous crowd of nearly 5,000 mostly young Kenyans at an arena in Nairobi, declaring, “I am proud to be the first American president to come to Kenya, and of course I’m the first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States.” The 40-minute televised speech was intended as the keystone event of Obama’s historic two-day trip to the country, the president’s first visit to his ancestral homeland since 2006. In his remarks, Obama praised Kenya’s dramatic growth over the past several decades, change he illustrated by reflecting on his own Kenyan family’s progress during that time, but he also urged Kenyans to make the “tough choices” ahead so that the “young country” could realize its full potential. Obama went on to outline the challenges Kenya still faces: widespread corruption, discrimination against women, terrorism, ethnic strife, and the country’s fragile democracy.

Kenya is at a crossroads, a moment filled with peril but enormous promise,” the president insisted, and some of the biggest applause came when Obama railed against corruption, a notorious and pervasive problem in the country and region. “Every shilling that’s a bribe could be put in the pockets of someone doing an honest day’s work,” he suggested. And as with corruption, most of Obama’s criticism pointed to age-old problems built into the fabric of Kenyan society, “bad traditions” holding the country back like tribal divisions and abusing women or excluding them from the workplace. “Imagine you have a team, and you don’t let half the team play — that’s stupid,” he said, referring to the frequent marginalization of women in African societies.

Obama also stressed that any politics designed around ethnic rivalries was “doomed to fail” and represented a “failure of imagination.” Making a connection to the recent Confederate flag debate here in the U.S., Obama reminded the audience, “Just because something is part of your past doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean it defines your future.” Mentioning how many young African girls still face the threats of forced marriage and genital mutilation, Obama added, “These traditions may date back centuries. They have no place in the 21st century. They are issues of right or wrong in any culture.”

You can watch the full speech here.