Obama, badgered by “birthers” in this country about his eligibility for the presidency, has downplayed his Kenyan ancestry; but in South Africa, retired archbishop Desmond Tutu embraced him, warmly wishing him “Welcome home” to the country where his father was born.
The African archbishop went on to express his interrelatedness with America, teasing and reaching out to touch Obama’s arm. “Your success is our success,” Tutu said. “Your failure, whether you like it or not, is our failure.”
Later, speaking at the University of Cape Town, the president erred in reporting his daughter Malia’s age. “She’s fifteen now,” he said—when in reality, she has not yet reached her fifteenth birthday.
At the University of Johannesburg, where Obama was to receive an honorary degree, hundreds of protesters gathered before his arrival, refusing to disperse until police fired rubber bullets and a stun grenade into the crowd. One incredulous student could not believe that this was happening in his country; “I feel,” he said, “that this is an extension of the United States.”
South Africa’s largest labor organization, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, planned protests. The Muslim Lawyers Association accused Obama of war crimes and demanded his arrest.
And even before that, there was Senegal. Last week, standing beside Senegalese President Macky Sall, Obama praised the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage, calling them “a victory for democracy.”
The idea didn’t fly in Kenya. After Obama encouraged African governments to decriminalize homosexuality, Kenya’s president and deputy president pushed back with strong words.
Kenya’s deputy president William Ruto, speaking at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church in Maili Kumi, called on Obama to “respect Kenyans” and to refrain from criticizing their belief that homosexuality is a sin. “No one should have any worry that Kenya is a God-fearing nation,” Ruto said. “President Obama is a powerful man, but we trust in God as it is written in the Bible, that ‘cursed is the man who puts trust in another man.’ ”
Ruto went on, insisting that Kenyans would not accept “alien mannerisms” such as homosexual acts, which are not in line with Kenyan cultural norms. (In fact, 38 African nations have laws criminalizing homosexuality.) “Those who believe other things,” he explained, “that is their business. But we believe in God.”
At a separate liturgy on Sunday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta expressed his disapproval of Obama’s embrace of same-sex marriage, which is strongly offensive to African cultures.
Finally, there was Kenyan Cardinal John Njue. Cardinal Njue, president of the Kenyan bishops’ conference, urged the American president to soften his rhetoric and accept Africans’ viewpoint on homosexuality. “Let him forget and forget and forget,” said the Cardinal. “I think we need to act according to our own traditions and our faiths. Those people who have already ruined their society … let them not become our teachers to tell us where to go.”