Kenyans enthusiastic about Obama

June 01, 2008|By Andrew Kipkemboi | Andrew Kipkemboi,Sun reporter

At the height of the crisis that followed a disputed presidential election early this year, Kenyans chuckled at an anonymous text message that poked fun at the Luo, one of the country's largest ethnic communities. They should make up their minds on which of the two Luos they would want to be president, the message said, an apparent reference to Raila Odinga - and Barack Obama.

Last year, Odinga sought, but failed, to become Kenya's fourth president since the nation gained independence. He is now prime minister in the new coalition government.

Obama, the junior U.S. senator from Illinois, is seeking to become America's first black president. His late father, Barack Obama Sr. (1936-1982), was a Luo from Nyangoma-Kagel village in Nyanza, the ancestral home of Odinga.

No one knows precisely how and when Kenya's Obama phenomenon started, but it began around the time Obama was elected to the Senate, in 2004. From public service vehicles festooned with images of a smiling Obama to American flags hoisted on mud-hut houses to newborn babies named after the senator, the Obama craze is on full display.

As Obama inches closer to the Democratic nomination, Kenya is ecstatic with thoughts of an American president with true Kenyan roots.

And if the bitterly fought elections in Kenya divided the country, the democratic duel between Obama and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton thousands of miles away has galvanized Kenya.

As I checked out of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on my way to the United States in mid-March, a languorous clerk looked at my passport and as he gave it back asked: "Unaenda kusaidia Obama?" ("You are going to help Obama win the nomination?")

"Yes," I said. Of course, he and I knew that to be impossible, but if there is a place that Obama could win without breaking a sweat, it is Kenya - if Kenyans were allowed to vote.

The excitement about Obama in Kenya boils down to identity. Kenyans want to identify with him, and most would do anything for him to win.

In his search for an identity, Obama - whose father, then a foreign exchange student, left his wife and child in Hawaii when Obama was a baby - twice visited the ancestral home of a father he only saw once, when he was 10. In his best-selling memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama wonders whether the only tie that bound him to his absent father was "a name, a blood type, or white people's scorn."

Ordinary Kenyans feel that they are connected to Obama out of a shared ancestry and country.

"His father was Kenyan, so he is Kenyan," is the attitude of people on the street.

In Kenya, people expect more than prestige from an Obama presidency. An elected leader's job description in a poverty-ravaged Kenyan village is not the same as that in a small town in the world's richest economy. Where Americans choose which leader can lower the cost of health care or create more jobs or reform the energy sector, in Kenya, as in the rest of Africa, the needs are more dire, the expectations greater.

The people expect their leader to help build roads, schools and hospitals and bring in piped water. It is like the story from my country of someone looking for a shoe and then there is someone without a leg who would be grateful just to have a leg. At Nyangoma-Kagel, the hometown of Obama's father, the people expect to leapfrog into modernity with Obama's rise.

As he flew to Africa in August 2006, and visited Kenya a third time, Obama poured cold water on those expectations.

"The new generation of Africans have to recognize the international community, relief organizations or the United States cannot help Africa if its own leaders are undermining the possibilities of progress," he said.

And as Kenya's post-election violence threatened to spiral out of control in January, Obama, in a broadcast on Voice of America, asked Kenya's leaders to sit down and make peace.

"Despite the irregularities in the vote tabulation, now is not the time to throw [Kenya's] strong democracy away," he said. "Now is the time for this terrible violence to end."

The senator's engagement to tackle the world's poorest continent's scourges, such as HIV/AIDS, poverty and bad governance, cannot be underestimated, he said.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, were tested for HIV in Nyanza, the epicenter of Kenya's AIDS epidemic. Knowing one's status is a big step in the fight against the disease. An estimated five in every 100 Kenyans are infected with the deadly virus.

In conjuction with a Kenyan bank, Obama has established a microcredit program from which AIDS widows, and grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren, can obtain loans to buy seeds, sewing machines and bicycles vital in eradicating poverty.

Obama rubbed the Kenyan government the wrong way when he criticized the endemic corruption and lethargy in the civil service and the raid at the offices of my newspaper, The Standard, in Nairobi in 2006. In the raid, our computers were confiscated and the day's press run was set on fire.

"Democracy can't function properly without a free press. ... When the heavy hand of the state is imposed on the press, all of us lose," Obama said at our I&M Bank Tower offices. "It is not just a loss for The Standard, it is a loss for the people of Kenya."

The United States played a big role in helping end the violence this year, and many Kenyans feel that Obama will force coalition leaders to agree to change a flawed constitution blamed for the misrule and deprivation that pervades the country.

It is the hope of many that Obama can cajole the establishment in Nairobi to carry out reforms that can make Kenya a better country and rid it of self-perpetuating, self-righteous politicians.

andrew.kipkemboi@baltsun.com

Andrew Kipkemboi, features editor of The Standard in Nairobi, Kenya, is an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow at The Sun.

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