Kisumu, Kenya — “Bush and McCain – they are the same! We don’t need four more years of the same!”
Kenyans have been receiving all the talking points, and are even speaking as if they were American voters these days. So this was an unsurprising exclamation to hear as a warren of drunks, this one a police officer, greeted me as I entered the Ramogi Bar, a rather gloomy dive named after a semi-mythical Luo chief. (JaRamogi – son of Ramogi – is frequently the title the Luo give to their heroes.)
#ad#Forgive Kenyans, and especially the Luo, for taking the American election personally. Barack Obama, one such JaRamogi, is regarded as a native son and is wildly popular throughout the country, nowhere more so than the undulating, densely populated hills that rise up from Lake Victoria in the western part of Kenya and constitute Luoland. The senator’s paternal heritage reaches, improbably, to this otherwise sleepy place; an ancestry detailed in Obama’s justly celebrated memoir, Dreams From My Father.
At times Kenyans depict Obama as a type of cultural infiltrator in America. As the front page of one Luo-language monthly on newsstands here announces, “Obama Muomo Amerka!” (Obama Invades America!). There follows a plea for “the People of the Lake to pray for Senator Obama” and a claim that “He will be our help, just like Joseph helped his brothers in Egypt.”
The grandmother of “Barack,” as he is called, is the 86-year-old Sarah Obama, who speaks no English and still lives in a modest homestead – albeit now guarded by an encampment of ten Kenyan army personnel – in the village of Nyan’goma Kogelo. Before the senator visited the village in 2006, there was no access road to speak of. No high government official from Kenya, much less the United States, had ever visited it. Reluctant to have their guest walk on the rocky path that led to the Kogelo – and probably even more reluctant to walk themselves – the pooh-bahs of the Kenyan officialdom ordered a conditioned dirt road hastily constructed especial for the visit.
When Obama finally “returned home,” as many Luos have it, he built a hut in his father’s compound in line with the tribe’s tradition. He also presided over the opening of the Senator Barack Obama Secondary School. The road, the school – development all of a sudden had come to tiny Kogelo, and expectations ran high, not unlike those of American voters, that Obama would do great things for the village and for the world.
Walking around Kogelo one hot and humid day last week, I spoke with Apolo Odipo, a farmer whose small plot runs up against a Pentecostal church, where he is a parishioner. We stood inside the shady, unadorned structure to escape the sun. Odipo pointed to the cracks in the church’s mud-and-straw walls and hoped that an Obama presidency would mean a new church building. (I thought better of attempting to explain the principle of church–state separation, which seems so ludicrous as to be incomprehensible to many of the African faithful I meet.)
Expectations were more realistic in Kisumu, Kenya’s third-largest city, and a place bearing the physical marks of political reality — its streets littered with the husks of supermarkets and bookstores which were burned by ethnic riots this January after the Luo presidential candidate Raila Odinga was rigged out of victory. Bishop Washington Ogonyo Ngede, who comes from the same Karuoth clan of the Luo as does the Obama family, is a prominent Pentecostal with a 250,000-strong following who was among Obama’s welcoming committee in 2006. He concedes, “You know, he’s not an African. Obama is an American. He doesn’t know our language. . . . But you can’t forget where your father comes from.” On this point, the author of Dreams From My Father would certainly agree.
Whether out of admiration or expectation or both, Kenyans are exuberant. Savvy business owners have put up framed photos of Obama, which now hang alongside the ubiquitous portraits of the president and prime minister. They sell for 500 shillings apiece (about $6.50), and one street-side vendor, Ali Onyango, tells me he has sold about five a day for many months. Obama has outsold the others, he says, and thus has already brought him an income. He hopes Obama will bring more donor aid to Kenya, some of which has lately been suspended because of the lack of accountability in tracing the funds the Kenyan government received in previous years.
#ad#This raises an interesting question. Most Kenyans are aware that Obama will be first and foremost an American politician, and not a covert agent of Kenya. But can Obama still be a force in Kenya, setting an example thousands of miles away?
By comparison to those politicians whose portraits hang next to his, Obama seems a saint. For many years, and almost without exception, Kenyan politicians have misappropriated government funds and gifted themselves large parcels of land, spreading wide this misbegotten wealth in their constituencies to corruptly inveigle voters. This is Africa’s “big man” syndrome which has rendered most democracy on the continent a farce: Politicians are elected not for their ideas or even for their character, but because their ethnic communities depend on them for material security.
Obama’s policy proposals, of course, are aimed at garnering voter support through just such material assurances, but there is an essential difference in his approach. What Manasseh Oyucho, headmaster of Kogelo’s primary school, told me is informative: “Obama, when he came here, you could see he is not someone removing money from his jacket pocket, giving it to everybody, and leaving for five years’ time” – in other words, the preferred approach of the Kenyan officeholder. Obama has set other positive examples, too, publicly had his blood drawn for an HIV test along with Michelle in Nairobi – something few Kenyan politicians, nervous about rumor, would submit to.
And Obama has certainly encouraged a tide of sympathy to stream towards the United States. One leftist intellectual writing in The Nation, Kenya’s largest daily, even lamented the possibility of an Obama victory, because it would eviscerate the notion, which he desperately wanted to believe was true, that America was the most racist of all Western countries!
As a senator and a candidate, Obama has cemented the United States’ reputation as a cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile society. Indeed, many people in Western Kenya profess amazement that America would have a Luo president before Kenya does, and marvel at how an affluent society can elevate the grandson of a villager before the much poorer Kenya could manage to do so.
It is unlikely that Obama will devote an undue amount of time to his father’s homeland as president. And many Kenyans who get their information from wildly off-base rumor and hearsay are going to have their unreasonable expectations disappointed. Even so, Obama is an important symbol that has caused Kenyans – and probably others throughout the world – to think better of America and inevitably compare it to the regime of their own country. With Obama, Kogelo has become that much talked-about global village.
– Travis Kavulla, a former associate editor of National Review, is a Phillips Foundation journalism fellow. He was a Gates Scholar in African History at Cambridge University last year.