January 25, 2008
Obama: The Kenya Connection
BY Edwin Okong'o
U.S. Senator and presidential hopeful, Barack Obama. Image: The Obama Campaign [Creative Commons]
Editor's Note: Throughout this year's U.S. presidential election, FRONTLINE/World will provide reporting and commentary from an international perspective, presenting dispatches and videos from our correspondents abroad and from immigrant communities within the United States. As part of this coverage, we will be teaming up with Public Radio International's daily news program, The World.
If we Kenyans were granted one wish for 2008, we would request the right to vote for Democratic Senator Barack Obama in the U.S. presidential elections. There would be no more questions about whether he is "black enough."
Kenyans believe in Barack Obama so much that I'm willing to bet that if he were to run against our President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga -- the two men at the center of Kenya's disputed December 27 election that has led to widespread tribal violence -- he would win in a landslide.
The absolute support that Kenyans offer Obama comes from the fact that his father was Kenyan, which, according to our tradition, makes him our own.
The absolute support that Kenyans offer Obama comes from the fact that his father was Kenyan, which, according to our tradition, makes him our own. In most of our tribal cultures, a child belongs to the father. This overshadows the fact that his mother was a white American. Likewise, the fact that Obama doesn't hold Kenyan citizenship, or speak any Kenyan language, is insignificant. Kenyans, especially those from his father's home province of Nyanza, love him so much that they have already renamed a primary school and a high school in his honor. In Kenyan bars, you can order "Obama beer," a brew that used to be named "Senator" long before he became one.
In addition to the pride that Obama has bestowed upon our country by having a successful political career in the most powerful nation in the world, many of us see a future President Obama as a godsend who would deliver our country from its miseries -- something our corrupt, tribalist leaders have failed to do.
Because of poor governance and the corrupt nature of the Kenyan political system, which gives the president absolute power to dispense funds, many Kenyans, particularly the poor and less educated, mistakenly believe that if elected president of the United States, Obama would have the sole discretion to write a blank check to end their poverty.
Kenyan-born journalist, Edwin Okong'o.
Educated Kenyans know that their country will have very little to gain economically from an Obama presidency, but back him, nevertheless, out of hope and pride. He is an important symbol of success for those who come from a country and a continent whose people foreigners have not always perceived as intelligent and capable of governing themselves effectively. And for those Kenyans living in the United States, Obama offers inspiration to their children by proving that if they work hard, they too can catch the elusive American dream.
Although many Kenyans living in the U.S. are not eligible to vote, they continue to campaign and even raise funds for Obama. For example, Jaluo.com, a Kenyan online discussion forum, regularly posts and forwards messages from Obama's campaign.
Ordinary Kenyans are not the only ones who see Obama as a messiah. Kenyan politicians have been using his popularity as political capital. In 2006, opposition leader Raila Odinga tried to portray Obama's trip to Kenya as a personal endorsement. Odinga's supporters created T-shirts and posters with cleverly computer-altered images that showed Obama and Odinga standing side by side, arms around each other.
More recently, on January 8th, Odinga told the BBC that Obama is his maternal cousin. Those who understand Kenyan politics know that Odinga's claim is meant to rally Kenyans behind him as he tries to fight his way into the State House, Kenya's highest office, which he contends Kibaki robbed him of by rigging the December 27 elections.
But given Odinga's controversial background and the continued ethnic violence in Kenya, his attempts to invoke Obama's name may undermine Obama's campaign in the U.S.
In American Op-Ed pages and in the blogosphere, many of Obama's political foes are already capitalizing on Obama's supposed ties to Odinga.
Odinga is the son of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya's first vice-president, a socialist who sent his son to Communist East Germany for college. The younger Odinga named one of his sons Fidel Castro and has also admitted to being one of the masterminds of a 1982 attempted coup against Daniel arap Moi, Kenya's second president. In American Op-Ed pages and in the blogosphere, many of Obama's political foes are already capitalizing on his supposed ties to Odinga.
When Obama took time off his campaign in New Hampshire to make a five-minute phone call to Odinga, urging him to talk with President Kibaki in order to avoid more bloodshed, New York Sun columnist Daniel Johnson wrote, "If [Obama] has been putting tribal or family considerations above America's national interest by supporting Mr. Odinga's anti-Western candidacy, it raises serious questions about his judgment."
By using the words "tribal considerations" Johnson assumes that Obama identifies with his father's tribe, the Luo, the main group clashing with the majority Kikuyus. But Obama has never claimed to be a Kenyan, let alone a Luo. He has said repeatedly that his loyalty is to the people of Illinois, who he represents, and to his fellow Americans.
Kenya's opposition leader, Raila Odinga. Image: Frederick Onyango [Creative Commons]:
Obama's perceived support for Odinga may have arisen from a speech he gave to university students in Nairobi during his 2006 visit. Obama spoke out against corruption in President Kibaki's government. Because Odinga is Kibaki's main political rival, Obama's criticism was misconstrued to mean that he had endorsed Odinga.
Obama has not publicly confirmed or denied his relation to Odinga.
But it doesn't really matter whether or not Odinga is Obama's cousin. His political opponents in the U.S. will no doubt find a way to use it against him. As one concerned Kenyan wrote on Kenyaimagine.com, another popular forum, "In the intensity of America's presidential race, any mud that can be thrown at a candidate is fair game. The candidates themselves may decide against going ugly, but there is never any doubt that their supporters will pull no punches and the close relationship (Raila insists) between Hon. Odinga and Senator Obama is proving fertile ground for his opponents, both among the Democrats and from the Republican Party."
The Black Vote
Unfortunately for Obama, the same Kenyan ancestry that has made citizens of his father's land of birth hold him so near and dear to their hearts and defend him when he is under siege is also the reason some African-Americans appear to be hesitant to vote for him.
There is a long history of tension between Africans and African-Americans that seldom comes to light when journalists and pundits question Obama's electability among black Americans.
"The relationship between Africans and African-Americans is a complex one," says Akanmu G. Adebayo, an African-born professor of history and the executive director of the Institute of Global Initiatives at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. "The conflict is deeply rooted in the issue of slavery, which has not been completely discussed by both sides in a candid way."
"They (Africans) did not suffer through slavery, but they come to this country and get handed everything," one man in the audience said, as everyone stared at him not sure how to respond.
For some African-Americans, the fact that Obama is not a descendant of slaves makes him not "black enough." Others have trouble with Obama's African immigrant heritage because they say Africans in America have a gratuitous advantage over African-Americans when it comes to jobs and educational opportunities.
Early last year, when questions about his blackness emerged in the African-American community, Priority Africa Network, a coalition of African NGOs in the San Francisco Bay Area, called a meeting to discuss how best to ease the tension between Africans and African-Americans. The people gathered in a small back room of a church in Oakland took turns speaking about the importance of bringing the two sides together. But there was one African-American man of about 40 years old, who questioned whether the two groups could ever have a meaningful dialog.
"They (Africans) did not suffer through slavery, but they come to this country and get handed everything," he said, as everyone stared at him not sure how to respond.
Adebayo, the Kennesaw State professor, whose institute has been hosting "Bridging the Gap and Building the Bridge," an annual conference that began in 1995 to promote better understanding between Africans and African-Americans, argues that the conflict between the two communities is the result of the mis-education and stereotypes that both sides receive about each other.
Some in the African community perceive African-Americans as lazy people who live in poverty by choice while other Americans work night and day chasing the dream. Such beliefs make African immigrants gravitate toward white Americans, who they have already been taught are hardworking and honest.
White Americans also play an important role in broadening the feud between the two black communities. My experience in the 13 years I have lived in this country -- and I know I'm not alone -- is that many Americans of European descent warm up quickly when they find out that the black man standing in front of them is not an African-American.
The comfort between Africans and American whites earns us dislike from some African-Americans, who see us not only as betrayers, but also collaborators in white America's refusal to provide the equal employment and education they have been fighting for. Adebayo adds that the way universities use Africans to count in meeting affirmative action quotas for African-Americans has also deepened the conflict between Africans and African-Americans.
The South Carolina Primary
After his strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire -- states where the population is overwhelmingly white -- Obama's first real test among black voters comes January 26 in South Carolina.
Whatever doubts African-Americans may have had about Obama's ancestry, Barry A. Walker, Sr., an African-American town councilman in Irmo, South Carolina, says he is confident Obama will win the national black vote if he becomes the Democrat's presidential nominee. But Walker, who also owns Mac's on Main, a restaurant in Columbia, insists Obama must win South Carolina's primary on Saturday.
"If he loses South Carolina, where 51 percent of Democrats are black, he is through," says Walker. "So far he is doing very well with black professionals because he has sent highly educated surrogates like Dr. [Susan] Rice of the Brookings Institutions. Meanwhile, Hillary has Bill Clinton down here knocking on the doors of less educated black people, who already recognize him and are excited to have a former president make personal visits to them."
In the beginning, African-Americans only questioned Obama's heritage because they knew very little about him, argues Walker.
"A year ago, Barack Obama was just a junior senator from Illinois and everyone thought a vote for him would be a waste," Walker says. "Now everyone knows him, especially after he won Iowa and came in a close second in New Hampshire. He is married to a black woman, he has black children, and he has worked in the black community. Can anyone get any blacker than that?"
A 2007 graduate of the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Edwin Okong'o is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of Mshale, a newspaper and Web site aimed at the African community living in the United States. He has written for FRONTLINE/World about the post-election violence in Kenya.