Jubilation in Kenya

They spilled over onto the highway adjoining Kibera, because the narrow, fetid alleyways of Africa’s second largest slum would not contain their exuberance, and the dancing continued throughout the night. Many were unemployed youth from the same tribe as Barack Obama’s father, the Luo, and they had just heard that a “brother”, a son of the soil, had been elected to the highest political position in the world.

A year ago the question about whether a Luo would become president of the United States or of Kenya first was doing the rounds. Kenya seemed the more likely at the time. But after December’s election, the Luo, Raile Odinga, lost, and there were terrible riots, massacres and ethnic cleansing. Obama supporters now felt vindicated. Some of these youths had probably taken part in the ugly violence of last January. Some even vowed to resume the mayhem if Obama lost, though this time possibly not against fellow Kenyans.

On election day, mock elections were held by comedians in Kisumu, the main city of Nyanza province, where Barack Obama Sr was born. Anyone bold enough to vote for McCain was soundly thrashed. In Kogelo, his home village, the choice bull had been fattened and was waiting the cue to be slaughtered. Throngs of journalists descended on this sleepy community and visitors from Uganda crossed the border to join in the fun. The approach road was graded in preparation for the tourists. Locals are hoping for much more than these crumbs once their favourite son becomes president.  

Kenya declared the Thursday after the election a public holiday. Some public taxi drivers in Nairobi returned the fare to their passengers when the news broke on the taxi radio. Some MPs even introduced a motion in the Kenyan parliament to upgrade the small airport in Kisumu to enable Air Force One to land and take off. (It was rejected.) A local security guard told me he was now hoping that the US embassy would make it much easier for Kenyans to get visas.

Why have Kenyans and Africans generally welcomed the outcome of the election? Partly because of their pride in his African roots. Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua declared that: "The election of Barack Obama... has finally broken the greatest barrier of prejudice in human history” and that “a totally and completely new era" had begun. But also because the “American dream” had come true. When he began his campaign, everything was against him: his experience, his age, his colour, his connections. Yet he has done his people proud -- not just black people, but all the downtrodden.

Africans feel Obama is ushering in a new age. The dream of Martin Luther King has been realised at last. The black man has attained his true dignity. Words like “change” and “revolution” have been on people’s lips these past weeks: a change in the heartless, profit-at-all-costs establishment that is indifferent to the wretched of the earth; a revolution overturning exploitation of the impoverished South.

But Obama is not a typical African-American. He is not the descendant of slaves. His father went to the United States from Kenya in the Tom Mboya airlifts of the 1960s, when young Africans were ferried in their hundreds to qualify quickly so that they could help in the government of the newly independent republic. Obama is the product of a different culture and tradition: Africans migrating to America to escape poverty, disease, unemployment and early death back home, as Irish and Italians did a century earlier. Obama’s forebears lack the “agonised ancestry” of those brought up from slavery, in the words of a Kenyan literary scholar. This may have contributed to Obama’s appeal within Africa.

The media played a big part, too. The local press has gone into overdrive and relegated the tragedy in eastern Congo to the inside pages. If his support for abortion and gay rights is mentioned – and it rarely is -- his supporters counter that Republican campaigns in Iraq and the Middle East are even more immoral.

However, Africans are realistic enough to appreciate that Obama is first and foremost an American, despite his Kenyan name. His priorities will be shaped by the dynamics and demands of the political and financial establishment in his own country. So the most people here can hope for is a favourable eye and some trickle-down effect. But the fact that he failed to mention his Kenyan roots in his acceptance speech was already disappointing. Acquiring visas could actually become harder for Kenyans. Will this be a repeat of Kennedy’s presidency, which produced little for an impoverished Ireland apart from increased tourism?

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, in Uganda.


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