Obama is Kenyan

Barack Obama in Kenya 2006. Picture: APTo the Kenyan mind, American senator Barack Obama is more Kenyan than American. "This is where he belongs. He just goes there (America) to work, but he will come back home," Catherine Oganda, a 40-year-old woman told American journalist David Mendell during Obama's visit to his fatherland in 2006.

Mendell asked why she believed Obama was Kenyan and she replied. "Because his father was Kenyan. You know, your father is your bloodline; it's not your mother. So you belong where your father comes from, in your fatherland. Kenya is in his blood." Welcome to patriarchal Kenya.

Nairobi artist Gregory Ochieng, a member of the Luo tribe, told journalists: "He is my tribesman. I feel happy that a Kenyan is representing us in the US as a senator. So when I heard he was coming here, I thought of doing something that was unique." Gregory presented Obama with a painted portrait captioned "Waruaki dal", which means "welcome home", during the trip.

Obama is idolized in Kenya. In his father's home district women chanted: "It's not just God we praise, but Obama too." Mendell recounts these anecdotes in his book, Obama: from promise to power, published last year. The 2006 trip was Obama's third homecoming. In his first press conference in Nairobi he acknowledged the obvious - that this trip was different from his previous visits.

Mendell relates that in interviews with the American press Obama tried to downplay the effect he would have on Kenyan society. "Kenya is not my country. It's the country of my father. I feel a connection but ultimately, it's not going to be me, and it's going to be them who are climbing the path to improving their lives."

But Kenyans are not about to let go. A radio station has been re-playing his Philadelphia speech and a newspaper has published excerpts of it. The Kenyan media has been reporting Obama's every move since he won the Democrat's ticket to contest the Illinois Senate seat in 2003. Obama is a household name in Kenya today. 

And yet the name is uncommon in Kenya. He is the only Obama this writer knows. There are also very few Muslims from Obama's Luo tribe. Moreover his Muslim linkage is an aberration considering the region of Kenya he comes from. Before working as a cook for missionaries in Nairobi, Senator Obama's grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama had travelled widely. Enlisting in the British colonial forces during World War I he visited Europe, India and Zanzibar (an island off the coast of East Africa and now part of the Republic of Tanzania), where he converted from Christianity to Islam and added Hussein to his name. He must have been quite an adventurous maverick.

Why this Obama-mania? A fundamental reason is that, in a country starved of political leadership, Obama fills a yawning chasm in Kenyans' collective psyche. After his visit there was street banter about his running for the Kenyan presidency. Now the joke is that, while his tribesman and alleged cousin Raila Odinga might have be denied Kenya's presidency, another Luo is going for a bigger catch - the US presidency.

In mid-March, a columnist in a Ugandan newspaper argued that Obama would not be elected president if he ran in Uganda because of his pro-abortion voting record and homosexual sympathies. Kenyans took this criticism from their neighbour badly. Both formerly occupied by the British, Kenya and Uganda relate like siblings - they are both friends and fierce competitors at the same time. Kenyans read sibling rivalry into the column: Ugandans are jealous that a Kenyan is doing so well but won't admit it openly. Such an outlook also reveals that Obama's pro-abortion and homosexual leanings are non-issues in Kenya.

His candour on another issue, however, went down extremely well. When he met President Kibaki in 2006 he raised the issue of corruption openly. He has that gift of saying the right thing at the right time. So, try as he might to present himself as an outsider, Obama appears to Kenyans as a successful son of their nation who wants to help others get up. Of course, more informed Kenyans know he can only achieve so much for the country and for Africa in general. Still, they reckon that Africa would receive more attention from Obama because he has a connection with the continent than from other US presidential candidates.

Kenya and USA have a special relationship that started with the US support for Kenya's independence from British colonialism in 1950s. Obama Senior's move to study in USA was part of a programme initiated by the Senator John F Kennedy to prepare young Africans to take over the technical running of the country once the colonialists left. The tendency for Kenyans to seek higher education in USA is still high. Kenya tops Africa in sending tertiary education students to the Unites States according to a 2007 report by Washington DC-based Institute of Education

These days some Kenyans even joke that their country might become a satellite state of US - and they would not mind one bit, especially with Obama as president.

Eric Kathenya writes from Nairobi, Kenya. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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