During President Obama’s whirlwind visit to his father’s homeland, people around Kenya often referred to him as “our son.” But what they heard Sunday was more like a lecture from a stern but loving father.
NAIROBI, Kenya — Shaking off the morning chill, they walked down dirt pathways and past burning piles of trash. It would cost 10 shillings — about a dime — to see the speech, but they wanted to see the man.
Inside a shack made of pressed tin sheets, the roof held up by tree trunks, they gathered Sunday morning to hear President Obama on television.
During Obama’s whirlwind visit to his father’s homeland, people around Kenya often referred to him as “our son.” But what they heard Sunday was more like a lecture from a stern but loving father.
And they could not have been happier. Even if they were at times skeptical on a point in Obama’s speech, they said his message would be absorbed and, they hoped, bring change.
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“He is saying what we need to hear,” Simon Oudo said as he watched.
When Obama criticized the “cancer of corruption” that infects every corner of life, Oudo, 25, nodded knowingly.
“I have no job,” he said. He scrapes by on the 50 shillings he earns for each car he washes. In a good week, he can take home 1,000 shillings, or $10.
“There are many jobs,” Oudo said. “But many people buy those jobs. It is corruption. It is killing us.”
Obama’s speech was directed to Kenyans, but it was likely to resonate in any city or village on the continent, many facing the same struggles and challenges.
In Kibera, a rough and worn slum in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, it was the sense of personal connection with Obama that made this moment different.
When the president spoke of his grandfather’s struggles working as a cook in the British military, there was a hushed silence in the shack. Most of the men there wore battered shoes, and their hands were worn from labor. They knew about struggle.
“He was referred to as a boy even though he was a grown man,” Obama said of his grandfather, adding, “A young, ambitious Kenyan today should not have to do what my grandfather did, and serve a foreign master.”
“You don’t need to do what my father did, and leave your home in order to get a good education and access to opportunity,” Obama said. “Because of Kenya’s progress, because of your potential, you can build your future right here, right now.”
They burst out in enthusiastic shouting.
Kibera is only a short walk from new office buildings and fancy restaurants, a testament to Kenya’s growing prosperity.
When Obama came to Kenya in 2006 as a senator, he visited this area.
Mohamed Abdul Rahim Suleiman met him that day, and on Sunday, he wore two Obama buttons on his chest as proof.
The words on one button — “Change. Courage. Hope.” — were also the words echoed in the shack, grandly known as San Siro Stadium. It is usually filled with people watching soccer. A chicken scurried across the floor as the headline on the TV declared, “Obama’s Grand Return.”
To a person, the people watching the speech said they believed Obama’s return would help their country.
“We all trust Obama,” said Solomon Mujivane, 49. “We are very proud of him. We know he does not see tribe. When he speaks about corruption, our leaders will listen.”
But even among this adoring crowd, there was some cynicism. At one point, a group of men burst into laughter, shouting in Swahili, as Obama talked about corruption.
“Corruption is everywhere,” Rashid Seif, 32, explained, pointing at another young man. “Just ask that man.”
Apparently, he was taking a bit off the top of the entry fee for watching the speech.
Obama’s call for better treatment of women — unlike descriptions of his personal history and calls to end corruption — was met mostly with silence. He got a laugh when he compared a society that limits its women to a team that does not use half its players.
“That’s stupid,” Obama said.
But there was only one woman in the room.
Elizabeth Nakhungo, 36, sat quietly with a broad smile. When asked what she thought about the president’s speech, her husband answered for her.
“She loved it,” he said.
The crowd was largely quiet as it listened to what at times felt like a sermon. One young man leaned over to a friend as Obama discussed his own journey and whispered, “Obama is really telling the whole story of all Kenyans.”
Oudo, the car washer, does not know what tomorrow will bring. He expects, though, that it will be a struggle to pay for food. Life will be hard.
“But today, it is a beautiful day,” he said. “We thank this great man for coming to Kenya.”