NAIROBI, Kenya – President Barack Obama arrived Friday in Kenya, the ancestral homeland that has waited impatiently for a visit from the U.S. president since he was first elected to office.
Air Force One touched down just after 8 p.m. local time, with Kenyan TV stations carrying every minute of his arrival live. In downtown Nairobi, hundreds lined the streets, cheering and shouting as the presidential motorcade roared past.
Obama’s father was born here in 1936 and died in 1982, and Obama is widely viewed as a son of Kenya. Children here are named for him – in Swahili his first name means “blessing” – as are schools and businesses.
“There’s huge, runaway expectations in Kenya about this trip, and huge excitement,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The main highway from the airport to Nairobi was lined Friday with U.S. and Kenyan flags. Billboards along the road hail the presidential visit. Near the city center, a giant billboard features pictures of Obama and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who greeted Obama at the airport. The hashtag “Obamareturns” was trending on Twitter in Nairobi.
There were few flourishes at the airport, though an 8-year-old, Joan Wamaitha, presented Obama with a bouquet of flowers and a curtsy as he bounded down the steps of the plane. He hugged Kenyatta, embraced his half-sister, Auma Obama, and signed a guest book.
Later at his hotel, Obama had dinner with about three dozen members of his extended family, including his half-sister and his stepgrandmother, Mama Sarah, whom he calls Granny.
He’s traveled here three times before, but never as president.
Obama first came to Kenya in 1987 to trace his father’s story and to meet his Kenyan family. He returned in 1992 with Michelle Obama, taking her to the village where his father was born. They returned in 2006, and the recently elected U.S. senator was greeted more like a sports legend or a rock star, with thousands lining the streets he traveled, hoping for a glimpse.
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