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Kenyans Expect More From U.S. President With African Roots


As President Obama prepares to start a second term, MORNING EDITION has asked NPR's foreign correspondents to gauge worldwide expectations for the next four years. We turn, this morning, to Kenya. Pride still runs deep there for the president, with roots in Kenya. But expectations of America's role have shifted from donor aid to partner in trade. NPR's Gregory Warner has the story.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Like the Obama Bar and Restaurant, the Obama cybercafe and the Obamart - spell that one out - the Obama Mini Shop, in the Kayole slum of Nairobi, was launched four years ago in a burst of hope and ambition.

CAROLINE OTIENO: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: The rise of Barack Obama inspired Caroline Otieno to sink the money she'd made stitching clothes, into stocking these shelves with sacks of sorghum and rolls of toilet paper. And when the president notched his second win, she started dreaming about what her convenience store could become.

OTIENO: I want this shop to be a wholesale arm or supermarket.

WARNER: The narrative of Barack Obama, this improbable rise of a man with African roots, still resonates deeply in this city. But if Obama - the symbol - still inspires hope, Obama - the president - does a little bit less. It still stings that Obama, as president, hasn't visited Kenya. He flew all the way to Ghana in 2009. Most of this continent, in fact, except for some military hot spots, has been low on the president's agenda.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Obama is coming.

WARNER: Obama is coming?

On the other side of Kayole slum is Obama restaurant, owned by a Mr. Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: His phone is off.

WARNER: Obama's cellphone is off. This is terrible.


WARNER: The restaurant is a one-room cave of cinderblock and corrugated tin, held up by tree branches. The owner, Augustine Obama, is one Kenyan who does not claim a relation to the president. He named this restaurant after himself. He echoes a common refrain - that although America gave $660 million to Kenya last year, he does not see it. It was siphoned off, he says, by corrupt politicians.

Obama to Obama, what would your advice be?

AUGUSTINE OBAMA: Yes, Barack Obama can just press; put more pressure on Kenyan leaders so that we can expand because what we lack, in Kenya, is leadership.

WARNER: He says he never expected President Obama to usher in more aid for Kenya. He just hoped he would have interceded in how that money gets distributed.

GODFREY MWAMPEMWA: A lot was expected of him, but little was delivered.

WARNER: Godfrey Mwampemwa, who publishes under the name Gado, is an editorial cartoonist and Nairobi media entrepreneur. He spends much of his creative energy exposing corruption. He says there's a lot of dissatisfaction here, with the old Western foreign aid model.

MWAMPEMWA: Something has always been expected from the American president. I don't think that will change anytime soon. What will change is what, exactly, is expected. That is really - is shifting; not necessarily aid, but more trade with Africa.

WARNER: Gado's fifth-floor office overlooks Nairobi's bustling business district. It offers a good view of just how much has changed here. In the last four years, while America struggled through a financial crisis, Africa's economy grew by an average 5 to 6 percent a year. And China eclipsed the U.S. as Africa's biggest trading partner, constructing highways and big energy projects that Gado says are highly visible to the average Kenyan.

MWAMPEMWA: That, in itself, opened up what Africa can do with other superpowers.

WARNER: He does not care if President Obama decides to visit Kenya this time around. What he wants, he says, is for America to be more visible here, a more meaningful partner.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.
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