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Obama Pushes for Gay Rights While in Kenya, Father's Homeland

President Barack Obama struck a personal note as he returned to his father's homeland, openly embracing his family during his first visit to the country as commander and chief.
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President Barack Obama urged equal rights for gays and lesbians in Africa during his first visit as commander-in-chief to Kenya, his father's homeland.

"When a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread," Obama said during a joint news conference Saturday with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Kenyatta quickly dismissed the sensitive topic, calling it a "non-issue."

Gay rights are "not really an issue on the foremost mind of Kenyans. And that is a fact," he said. Like many African countries, Kenya outlaws homosexuality.

The news conference followed closed-door discussions in which the two leaders agreed to collaborate on economic growth. Obama told reporters that African entrepreneurs were key to fighting security threats, such as Somali militant group al Shabaab, which has targeted Kenya.

Obama first made a pilgrimage to Kenya three decades ago, backpacking through the nation where he has roots. He promised the Kenyan people Saturday that he would return to do philanthropic work there after his presidency.

His trip fulfilled the hopes of millions of Kenyans. It is the first such visit by a sitting president, and a long-sought visit by a country that considers him a local son.

The president spent Friday evening reuniting with his Kenyan family, including his elderly step-grandmother who made the trip to the capital of Nairobi from her rural village.

"It was a wonderful time," he said Saturday of time with his relatives, adding that he looks forward to having "more freedom to reconnect" once he's no longer president. "Mostly we were just catching up."

Obama spoke openly about the deep connection he felt to the East African nation.

"There's a reason why my name is Barack Hussein Obama," he said earlier Saturday at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi. "My father came from these parts and I have family and relatives here, and in my visits over the years walking the streets of Nairobi I've come to know the warmth and spirit of the Kenyan people."

On the importance of cultivating entrepreneurship, he heralded Africa as a continent "on the move."

"Africa is one of the fastest growing regions of the world," Obama said. "People are being lifted out of poverty."

The White House unveiled more than $1 billion new commitments from the U.S. government, as well as American banks, foundations and philanthropists. Half of the money will go to support women and young people, who Obama says face bigger obstacles when trying to start businesses.

U.S. and Kenyan flags lined the main road from Nairobi's airport, and billboards heralding Obama's trip dotted the city.

Related: Obama's Kenya Trip Highlights Roots, Africa Policy

"I don't think that Kenyans think of Obama as African-American. They think of him as Kenyan-American," said EJ Hogendoorn, deputy program director for Africa at the International Crisis Group.

Obama's link to Kenya is a father he barely knew, but whose influence can nonetheless be seen in his son's presidency. Obama has spoken candidly about growing up without his Kenyan-born father and feeling "the weight of that absence."

A White House initiative to support young men of color who face similar circumstances has become a project dear to Obama, one he plans to continue after leaving the White House.