Nairobi: Euphoria and Questions

Nairobi: Euphoria and Questions

A nation riven by differences marvels at his message of civility and inclusion. Yet there is some worry about an Obama administration’s policies on Africa.



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.

At the University of Nairobi, where I teach, I was struck by what students said they’d taken away from Obama’s victory speech and McCain’s concession speech–the generosity of spirit and the coming together–which they said was far from the norm here. “In Kenya, if you lose it’s not the person but the tribe; we are still fighting for our tribe,” said Gillian Koech, as several of her friends nodded. One, Nicholas Airo, who is from the same Luo tribe as Obama’s father, said that several non-Luos have come up to him already and said, in a dismissive way, “You must be so proud.” Another, Bob Koigi, from the same Kikuyu tribe as the Kenyan president, said that when he texted a friend who is also Kikuyu to say how excited he was by Obama’s win, “He said, ‘Get a life; don’t you have time for better things?’ ” All the students expressed the hope that Obama will set an example for Kenyans, but said change will only come if political leaders take the lead. “If I had magic powers I would make people forget Kikuyus and Luos,” said Koigi. “Obama’s win is a Kenyan win.”

And a world win, according to some of their older countrymen. ‘I’m elated and exhilarated, but I think the greatest part is that the image of the US is totally transformed,” said Perez Olindo, a former director of the national parks. Olindo–one of several hundred Kenyans, including Obama Sr., who went to college in the United States fifty years ago on a pre-independence “airlift” sponsored by the Kennedy family–knew Obama’s father while both served in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Tourism and Wildlife. “He was a thinker, analytical,” recalls Olindo, who credits the elder Obama with coming up with the idea of selling Westerners on Kenya’s beaches, not just its wildlife. “He said, ‘Many people in Europe and America may not know about our wildlife, but one thing I know is that it’s very cold there,’ ” Olindo recalls. When he looks at the young Obama, Olindo says, he sees the same deliberative, focused intelligence that made his father such a good economist. “I know that he’s an American and that he will first and foremost promote an American program,” he says. “But by virtue of his background he will have a very keen ear for what people elsewhere are saying.” And, he adds, “he’s already affected the thinking of the world, which is looking more positively at America.”

The reality–at least in Kenya–may prove to be less dramatic than many people imagine. Susan Rice, Obama’s closest adviser on Africa, supports Africom, the new US military initiative that appears aimed at turning the continent into the next front in the “war on terror.” And many of Obama’s other foreign policy advisers are also retreads from the Clinton Administration, which balked at joining the International Criminal Court and pushed a free-trade agenda that promised to devastate Third World agriculture. Obama has been silent on Washington’s disastrous interventions in neighboring Somalia, and he’s barely mentioned Africa during the campaign.

And the roads will still be filled, as they were this morning, with Nairobians walking miles to work because they can’t afford bus fare, and half of the people will be living on less than $1 a day.

Still, for today, joy reigns supreme. Plans are under way to turn Nyanza into a major tourist destination, and taxi drivers who made small fortunes ferrying foreign media to the Obama family’s village are already anticipating that hordes of Americans will follow. As the excited DJ said, today is Obama Day.

Ad Policy