As I am currently on the other side of the world and in a different time zone, I went to bed last night not knowing who the President of the United States would be for the next four years. One might think that I am as far away as one could be from the American political extravaganza that continues to go on. I’m on the other side of the world, where poverty is commonplace and the daily grind is all consuming for the people who live here.
Why would anyone here really care if Obama retains his Presidency? As one friend explained, his connection to Kenya is weak at best, barely having any real ties in the country. In the entirety of his last term in office he had only visited Kenya once, and that was mainly to see his grandmother and see how he was doing. “His only connection is that his father gave birth to him, and that is supposed to make him Kenyan?”, my friend explained, “The only reason Obama has ever reached out to Kenya was to fix his own identity crisis.”
This makes me wonder just what does Obama’s presidency mean to the average Kenyan citizen. Does anyone really care?
Enter Kogelo. If you want to see ground-zero for Obama fandom in Kenya, there is no better place than that of his ancestral village town called Kogelo. Located not far from Kisumu, Kogalo is where you will his Obama’s blood connection with Kenya, as his late father hailed from this small village and is where many of the President’s extended family still live. The election excitement has been building for weeks, as the town has been getting ready for today’s big election. It was a week ago when the town hosted a special bull fighting match, pitting the black ‘Obama’ bull against the slightly larger white ‘Romney’ bull. While it was a close match, Obama came out ahead and defeated his bovine rival. Then there was the mock election held just a few days ago, in which local residents could cast their ballot to elect the Kenyan Romney or the Kenyan Obama, having two local men posing as the American candidates. No surprise, ‘Obama’ won the popular vote by a landslide.
However, as the eve of the election arrived and things got serious, all joking was put aside and high hopes and expectations were palpable as local religious leaders ascended on the town for overnight vigil prayers as they awaited the outcome of the polls. Even the President’s celebrity grandmother, Sarah Obama, gave a speech to the crowd that had amassed to offer words of encouragement. The atmosphere was tense.
Then the moment arrived and the ballots were cast, and all of that tensions was released in one gigantic public display of euphoria when it was announced that Obama would be in office for another term. Video clips have been playing on the Kenyan news channels all day, showing the Kogelo residents spilled out into the street in celebration. The village, the nation was going mad with Obama-fever.
One has to wonder, though, how the election of a head of state half way around the world can have such relevance for these people. Kenya will be holding its own national election in just five months, and one would think that this would be the only real political game of interest. Sure, people all over the world are pleased to see Obama in office for another four years, but I question if you will find city wide celebrations in Seoul, or if you would see people shedding tears for this moment in Belgium.
I asked this question to my co-workers at school, and it would seem that the significance of this election goes much deeper than just mere distant family ties to the country. One teacher literally came dancing into the staff room, singing the words “my brother, my brother” as the went around shaking everyone’s hand. I asked her why this election means so much to her. She told me that Obama is an international role model to all people of the world, especially for the black population. “Before, the world would have simply seen the color of the man’s skin and would have assumed him to be ignorant, unqualified. There was a level of prejudice that would never have seen a man like him achieve this. Now, for the second time Obama has shown that any black person can achieve greatness! Obama is my brother, my blood brother, a brother to all black people.”
She touched on a recurring theme amongst people that I had spoken to today. While I admit that it had been for me easy to brush aside the significance what it means to have a black man achieve what Obama has, it quickly became apparent that the people around me had not. It became apparent that Obama’s achievement was not just a token accomplishment for the people of Kenya. Rather, in the eyes of my Kenyan friends this was a legitimate step forward for their perception of what a person of color is able to achieve, how they perceive how the world perceives them. My afternoon boda boda taxi driver explained it best. “To be honest, for a long time I had thought that the American people had put Obama in office the first time as an act of kindness. When it looked like Obama was going to lose this election, I began to feel as though people were done with a black President and were never going to let him lead again. It made me happy to see that the American people wanted him to stay for another four years. It shows just accepting they are of a black man, that they can judge him by things other than his skin color.”
While one couldn’t say with certainty that a defeat for Obama would have been because of his skin color, it does represent a common sentiment amongst Kenyans; that racial prejudice is improving and is getting better.
If it is true, that Obama is a role model for most Kenyans, then no opinion would be more important that than of the Kenyan youth. These are young students that are facing often incredible hardships, both at school and at home, and are now bearing witness to their Kenyan brother holding his position at the top of the most powerful country in the world. How does that make them feel?
I had found one group of young Kenya boys in the compound of my school who were already pondering this very question. I realized that they were already talking about the election as I approached them. “What does it mean for me? Obama is my role model. I see in him an African man that has become the president of a powerful country, and that makes me feel proud.” The boy who said this was in grade 11 and is planning to become a doctor when he grows up. He was surrounded by his friends as he spoke, all of whom shared the same sentiment.
These boys are the future of their country, and if Kenya is to lift itself out of the many problems that it is currently faced with it will need a generation of boys like these, who are able to persevere in the face of their numerous hardships. What does Obama mean to Kenya? Nothing. Everything.