Hope riding on a Kenyan 'son'

Local immigrants from E. African country celebrate the success of Barack Obama

July 09, 2008|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Over grilled goat meat and Amstel Light, the men banter in a rapid-fire blend of Swahili and English. It's hot, humid and loud on the gravel patio of this Northeast Baltimore bar, where the tables are covered with thatched umbrellas and Kenyan-style Lingala tunes pulse from a nearby TV.

Friday nights at Charlie Brown's are typically reserved for partying. But on this recent night, it's all about politics, as conversation centers on Kenya's most famous son - Barack Obama.

It doesn't matter that Obama was neither born nor raised in Kenya (his father, also named Barack, was from a small village in Kenya's Nyanza province). And whether he wins the race for the presidency is somewhat irrelevant. Among this circle of friends, Obama's nomination alone is cause for celebration, reflection and intense debate.

"In Kenyan culture, they consider Barack their son," said Mike Mugo, a 34-year-old nurse from Baltimore who grew up in Nairobi. "You are a son of Kenya, no matter where you live. And because of that, Kenyans feel immense pride."

"But if he is president, how does it help Kenya?" William Gachiri interjected, playing the self-described devil's advocate.

The exchange reflects a mix of pride, hope and trepidation about Obama's run for president. The pride is easy to articulate - Obama shares their lineage and appears to care deeply about the east African nation. An Obama presidency could boost Kenya's reputation in the U.S. and the world, they hope.

They also acknowledge that their dreams for an Obama presidency might be too lofty. Surely, Obama alone can't end ethnic tensions in Kenya, improve diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the world, and run the most powerful nation, they say.

In neighborhoods straddling Baltimore's northeast border with Baltimore County, Mugo has found a small but tightly knit community of Kenyans of various ethnic groups. About 4,700 Kenyans called Maryland home in 2006, according to the Migration Police Institute. Mugo and others say jokingly that nearly all of them hang out at the patio of Charlie Brown's.

They come for Nyama Choma, which translates to "grilled meat" in Swahili, a hugely popular Kenyan specialty served in heaping piles on styrofoam plates. The smoky scent of goat ribs wafts between the crowded tables of the dimly lit back patio. Meanwhile, in the front room of the bar - popular with a diverse bunch of native Baltimoreans and Kenyans alike - hip-hop music thumps through speakers.

In a conversation that touched on Kenya's economic and social problems and the complexities of race in America, the group expressed worries that Obama has a rough campaign ahead and that even if he wins the presidency, his administration might be unable to fulfill their expectations.

Gachiri dryly wonders aloud if too many Kenyans in America support Obama simply because of his lineage.

His three other friends scoff and chide him with laughter. Mugo shakes his head - no way.

"My support for Obama has nothing to do with him being black or Kenyan," Mugo said. "When I heard his speech at the Democratic National Convention, I started standing. I started cheering. Anybody, black, white, green or yellow, who spoke like this, I would have to identify with them. He appeals to a sense of decency."

Days after watching Obama's break-out speech in 2004, Mugo purchased his book, Dreams From My Father. He was impressed with Obama's accomplishments and how candidly he described being raised by a white mother from Kansas, longing to know his father in Kenya and ultimately finding his racial identity.

Obama also expressed deep affection for Kenya, said Joe Wachira, a high school teacher from Middle River. Wachira remembers a photo that appeared in the Kenyan newspaper, The Standard, showing a young Obama on the first of three visits to the country.

"He was helping his grandmother carry things, hanging out in the market, just doing the things that we do," said Wachira intensely. "He blended fairly easy in this Third World country, and that meant a lot to Kenyans."

And even though Kenyans affectionately call Obama "point 5" as in 0.5, to connote being half-Kenyan, they consider him every bit one of them, Wachira and others said.

Back home, Obama is considered such a hero that some people expect the impossible from him, Wachira said.

"They think Kenya has a rich friend in the U.S.," said Mugo. "For so many years, all we hear about Africa is negative things. Any person who goes and becomes famous and important and is contributing in this nature, they are proud."

The presumptive Democratic Party nominee receives rock-star treatment in Kenya, where a popular beer called Senator is known simply as "Obama." His popularity permeates a nation fractured along ethnic lines.

In January, Kenya's flawed presidential election resulted in ethnic violence between Luos and ethnic Kikuyus, the nation's most populous ethnic group (which includes President Mwai Kibaki). Obama's father was a Luo.

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