NAIROBI — President Obama gathered with three dozen family members in Kenya’s capital Friday night, marking his first visit to his father’s homeland since becoming president.
His elderly step-grandmother Mama Sarah, half-sister Auma Obama and numerous other relatives joined him around a long table at the Villa Rosa Kempinski Hotel’s restaurant less than two hours after Air Force One touched down at Kenyatta International Airport.
This visit marks the fourth time Obama has visited Kenya, where his father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., was born and lived most of his life. It is the first time a sitting U.S. president has come to the country; he will also be the first American president to go to Ethiopia when he visits there in a couple of days.
Mama Sarah — whom Obama calls “Granny” — sported a gold headscarf and sat to his right, while Auma, the daughter of his father from his first marriage, sat to his left. The diners appeared relaxed and were chatting as reporters observed them before being quickly ushered from the room.
Obama received a warm but somewhat muted reception upon his initial arrival in Nairobi, as security precautions kept many well-wishers at bay.
Top Kenyan government officials, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, joined an 8-year old girl bearing flowers in welcoming Obama on a red carpet after Air Force One touched down at the airport. Obama greeted both Kenyatta and his half-sister Auma Obama, who came to greet him at the airport, with a hug. Joan Wamaitha, dressed in white dress, curtsied and handed him a bouquet, prompting the president to embrace her as well.
A spotlight illuminated the tarmac: Several dozen yards beyond the red carpet, hundreds of journalists stood by while dozens of citizens pressed against the glass doors of the airport terminal to watch Obama’s arrival.
After walking to the end of the red carpet, during which time he shook hands with every official in turn, Obama sat at a desk and signed a formal guest book as Kenyatta stood looking on.
As the motorcade made its way to the president’s hotel, throngs of Kenyans lined the road in areas where they were permitted to stand. Soldiers were posted intermittently, facing away from the highway, while groups of people stood in clusters in parking lots and other sites. Dozens of onlookers let out a cheer from a gas station, and hundreds cheered as the motorcade approached the hotel.
A billboard along the road said "Karibu POTUS," using the Swahili word for “welcome,” while one onlooker held up a sign offering to build the president’s Kenyan house for free.