President Mwai Kibaki just declared Thursday, November 6 a public holiday in Kenya, but the country is already in a partying mood. In Nyanza, the home area of Barack Obama’s family, preparations are under way for slaughtering several bulls. Here in Nairobi, one excited DJ asked his radio listeners just after John McCain made his concession speech, “How are you doing this Obama Day?”
And, in a comment that reflected Kenyans’ perception of Obama as one of their own, political activist and human rights campaigner Mwalimu Mati told me, “America looks like it’s going to get change. It’s incredible that that change is being brought about by a Kenyan.”
I started the day at 3:30 am, first tuning into CNN in my apartment and then spending an hour with some British and American neighbors watching the early returns. A couple hours later, I headed out to the residence of the American ambassador, where several hundred people–about half of them Kenyans, including several dozen high school students, and the others a mix of diplomats and American officials–were watching the action on a giant TV screen. When the word came that Obama had clinched the race, a huge scream went up.
For most Kenyans, the news of Obama’s victory came as anything but a surprise–the newspapers and airwaves have been so full of Obama stories for months that most Kenyans would have had a hard time believing otherwise. (In fact, there were concerns that an Obama loss would precipitate rioting, as happened last year after the incumbent president was officially named the winner of a disputed race.) Obama’s face and fame have been used to sell everything from T-shirts to “Senator” beer. In recent weeks you could listen to “Obama Be Thy Name,” written by a local Afro-fusion musician, on the radio and catch Obama: The Musical, by a local playwright, at the Kenya National Theater. One of the local papers went so far as to run a lead editorial titled “Why We Endorse Barack Obama”–enough to make a stranger think the contest was being run here rather than 8,000 miles and eight time zones away–that concluded, “The American people deserve change, as does the rest of the world.”
Nothing, however, compared with the euphoria of this morning. “I am excited and elated, and definitely proud to be Kenyan,” said a smiling Bettina Mafwan, one of the young students at the ambassador’s house. “Obama is young, he has high ideals, and I really believe he can change the world.” Her friend Betsy Kobia said that Obama is a great inspiration to young people in Kenya. “He’s shown that you can come from nowhere and do anything,” she said.