As he motorcades from hotel to conference room to arena in Africa, President Barack Obama has been fantasizing about a return trip to the continent after leaving office – one with more family, less fanfare and fewer people telling him where he can’t go.
Kenya’s bustling capital of Nairobi was mostly locked down for Obama’s visit, and he took numerous opportunities to point out the limitations of traveling with the immense security detail that accompanies an American president overseas. Out of the question was a visit to Kogelo, where his father is buried, and Obama lamented that his quality time with his Kenyan family was so limited.
Yet in between speeches and meetings with Kenyan leaders, Obama mused about a very different kind of visit he said he’ll make with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia after his presidency ends in 2017.
On his fantasy itinerary is a visit to Maasai Mara, the national reserve renowned for its safaris and wildlife, and the Serengeti region in which it sits. He also fondly recalled visiting the Kenyan coastal town of Lamu when he was engaged to wife, saying they went out on a boat and then ate fish that vessel’s captain cooked on the beach.
These days, Lamu’s once-vibrant tourist industry has virtually collapsed due to past attacks by al-Shabab militants based in nearby Somalia, where a suicide car bomber killed at least four people at a Mogadishu hotel Sunday. The Kenyan government recently lifted a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Lamu, but a heavy security presence remains there.
Another must-do for Obama’s next trip: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain. Kiliminjaro isn’t in Kenya, but is just across the border in Tanzania.
”Secret Service generally doesn’t like me climbing mountains,” Obama said in an interview on Kenyan radio station Capital FM. ”But as a private citizen, hopefully I can get away with it.”
”The guy slept in a camping bed behind my couch in a tiny living room in a tiny flat.”
That’s how Auma Obama described her brother’s first visit to Kenya nearly three decades ago.
She gave the president a warm introduction at his speech Sunday at an indoor arena in Nairobi. As a young man, she recalled, Obama ”fit right in” and ”ate with us at multiple tables because we’re a big family.”
Now, she said, ”we’re happy to share him with the world because he’s not just ours.”
Auma Obama is the president’s half-sister on his father’s side. Their Kenyan father died in a car crash in 1982.
She recalled picking up Obama in a battered Volkswagen Beetle on his first visit to Kenya, a vehicle Obama remembered as slightly less than reliable. ”It broke down four or five times,” he said.
What a difference a few decades make.
On this trip, Auma Obama said, it was her brother who gave her a ride from that same airport in the ”Beast,” the armored limousine shipped over from the U.S. before the president arrives in a country.
”He returned the favor,” she said.
Obama reached back to his early days as a community organizer to find common cause with African youth and civic leaders during a group conversation about promoting civil society initiatives in Kenya and beyond.
With a roving microphone in hand and a high stool to perch on, the president doffed his jacket and traded ideas with local activists who laid out the challenges they’re tackling, some of them far different from those he had confronted in inner city Chicago – saving elephants from poachers, for example, and helping girls attend school rather than being married off to older men.
On other matters, though, there were stronger parallels, such as helping young people find hope in urban slums.
He found commonalities in the big picture, telling the young leaders that ”bottom-up civic participation” was the key to making societies work better. Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, the former college professor gave a mini history lesson on the early days of American democracy and the hard-fought gains of the civil rights movement and other democratic advances.
Obama’s own work as a community organizer ”taught me the importance of ordinary people when they come together to create a better vision for the future,” he said. If Kenya ”can continue to cultivate those habits of participation and freedom,” he said, ”the country is going to be better off.”