Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Obama’s Message Crosses the Atlantic

By Nathan L. Gonzales

NAIROBI, Kenya — Across the stream of raw sewage and past the piles of trash, Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) message of hope resonates thousands of miles away. In Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods, the prospect of a President Obama has captured the imagination of the next generation of Kenyans.

The conditions of the school aren’t fit for an American jail, yet the dark and musty rooms are filled with row after row of smiling schoolchildren. These students live in the Mathare Valley, one of Africa’s largest slums and a place where more than one meal a day is a luxury, and when given the option to ask anything about the United States, their answer is almost universal — they want to know more about Obama.

Obama’s father, whose name also was Barack, grew up in the tiny village of Nyangoma-Kogelo in rural Western Kenya. He moved to Hawaii for college, the first African exchange student at the University of Hawaii, where he met the Senator’s mother. He later became a senior economist in the Kenyan Ministry of Finance but died in a car crash in 1982.

Obama wasn’t raised in Kenya, has visited the country less than a handful of times in his lifetime and wasn’t particularly close to his father since he left the family when Obama was only 2 years old. Like many Americans, Kenyans know very little about what the Illinois Senator stands for, but they do know of his dad.

Regardless of how deep his Kenyan roots go, Obama’s profile in Kenya has steadily increased over the past four years. His election to the Senate in 2004 sparked some interest, but his visit to the region in August and heavy local media coverage sent his name identification in Kenya through the roof.

“I love all of you, my brothers — all of you, my sisters,” Obama told a crowd in Kibera, another Nairobi slum where at least 700,000 people live within a square mile. “I want to make sure everybody in America knows Kibera.”

The Senator, on the trip with his wife and two daughters, took in other Kenyan towns including his father’s village, where he visited his grandmother. The Senator’s policy speech at the University of Nairobi was carried live on television, a rare occurrence.

Obama hadn’t been to Kenya since the early 1990s when he visited to introduce his then-fiancee to the Kenyan side of his family. He also visited his sister in Kenya in 1986.

In the United States, even Democrats are still getting to know Obama. An April 12-15 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed only 25 percent of Democrats said they knew a great deal or good amount about Obama’s positions on the issues. And that number would be much lower when extrapolated to the population as a whole.

Obama’s popularity in Kenya really has nothing to do with what he says or what he stands for. And it also has virtually nothing to do with President Bush. The fascination is certainly personal and not political or partisan. Obama has captured the imagination of the youngest Kenyans.

“Send our greetings to Barack Obama,” shared one polite fifth-grader who quickly piped up, instead of offering a question about the United States. When asked how it would make them feel if Obama was president of the United States, one Form 4 (12th grade) student simply and quickly offered, “Proud.”

Some older Kenyans are more skeptical. “Just because his dad is Kenyan doesn’t make him one of us,” said one 24-year-old Kenyan woman on the impact of Obama on her life.

Tribal politics also are a factor. Obama’s father comes from the Luo tribe, one of Kenya’s largest (out of at least 40) and one also known for its tribal pride. In the eyes of other Kenyans, the Luo tribe doesn’t need any help boasting about its status.

With their own presidential race in December, politics is already on the mind of many Kenyans. President Mwai Kibaki (part of the Kikuyu tribe, the country’s largest) has been widely praised during his first five-year term, particularly on the heels of the tumultuous 24-year reign of President Daniel arap Moi. The economy grew by 6.1 percent last year, even though unemployment is still a huge problem (up to 40 percent, according to some sources).

But Kenyans are cautiously optimistic after the 2002 election results in their own country (after a number of rigged elections) and are watching the 2008 race for president in the United States. One social studies teacher at a school in the slums peppered me with questions about Obama’s chances in the race and the advantages of the two-party system. He wanted to make sure he had an accurate reading of Obama’s candidacy to be certain his teachings were on the mark.

Obama’s election would be historic in two countries. But he doesn’t even have to win the presidency to make an impact here in East Africa, because he already has broadened the aspirations of thousands of Kenyan children. If a candidate with Kenyan roots can become president of the United States, anything is possible to these kids.

Obama’s candidacy is giving hope to a group of Democrats looking to turn the page after eight years of George W. Bush, but to a group of people in the slums of Nairobi, Obama is more than politics. He is a brighter tomorrow.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on June 7, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.