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Election 2008 The World is Watching

Dispatch

Obama: Awakening the African Vote

With Obama, African immigrants in the U.S. find a political voice

BY EDWIN OKONG'OAugust 25, 2008

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A graduate of the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Edwin Okong'o is a writer and a freelance journalist.

The candidacy of Barack Obama has galvanized a small but rapidly growing group that had previously avoided any involvement in American politics: African-born immigrants to the United States.

There are now at least 1.3 million African immigrants living in the United States, and Obama's rise has reminded some that as they settle in America and raise their children here, they have a civic duty to participate in politics. Since I moved to Minneapolis a year ago to take a job editing and writing for a paper aimed at the African diaspora in America, I have had a front-row seat for watching the entry of Africans into American politics.

African immigrants tend to be a well-educated, relatively prosperous group and many will be donating money to Obama's campaign. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, approximately 40 percent of African-born immigrants in the workplace are in "management, professional and related occupations," compared to just over 28 percent for the general foreign-born population.

I know one African businessman who is so enthralled with Obama that he has donated $2,300 to Obama's campaign, even though he's having trouble meeting his own company's payroll.

It wasn't always like this.

Based on bad experiences with violence and corruption in politics back home, many African immigrants have traditionally steered clear of politics in this country.

Based on bad experiences with violence and corruption in politics back home, many African immigrants have traditionally steered clear of politics in this country. This was certainly true of me. A violent scare during Kenya's first multiparty election in 1992 made me vow never to go anywhere near politicians or their fanatical supporters again.

But I have seen Africans here support Obama with increasing zeal and passion, as he evolved from longshot presidential candidate to serious contender to current leader in national polls.

Recently, at an Ethiopian restaurant in Minneapolis's Cedar-Riverside, a neighborhood mostly inhabited by African immigrants, I saw a waitress, Hiwot Duressa, become so excited at the sight of an Obama story on CNN that she nearly dropped a tray full of dirty dishes.

"We love him!" Duressa told me when she returned from the kitchen.

Duressa said her whole family is excited about Obama, whose late father was a Kenyan, as well as a scholarship student in the United States. She told me that her mother, who had refused to learn about computers since coming to America three years ago, had changed her mind about technology because of Obama's campaign. Duressa's mother now goes online several times a day just to read the latest news about her candidate. Duressa added that her sister and brother in-law are naturalized citizens who have never voted but can't wait to vote for Obama in November.

"When I see his picture, I feel like he is part of my family," Duressa added.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama's candidacy has inspired African immigrants to take a greater interest in American politics. [Image: Creative Commons]

I, too, have been drawn into American politics, partly because of this Obama-mania and partly because keeping up with the political horserace is a big portion of my job these days. This is a complete turnaround since my first experience in politics nearly got me beaten and thrown in jail in my native Kenya.

Back in 1992, the opposition Democratic Party mounted an upstart campaign for parliament in my birthplace, Makairo, in the Gusii highlands of southwestern Kenya. The candidate was David Nyakang'o, a friend of my father's. Despite Nyakang'o's lack of oratory skills, people got excited about the possibility of one of their own becoming a member of Parliament. They began to dream about the things that Nyakang'o would bring to our small village if he won: electricity, telephones and newly paved roads to replace the ones that became impassable during the rains.

My father, an untrained primary school teacher, also believed that Nyakang'o had a job reserved for me at Mumias Sugar Company, where he was the chief financial officer. So, when this potential benefactor ran for parliament, my father, without consulting me, volunteered me to be youth coordinator of Nyakang'o's campaign.

I was only a teenager, but my cousin and I plunged into the campaign. With money from the campaign manager, we showered young people with chang'aa, an alcoholic spirit distilled illicitly, and hit the road all day and night, chanting and singing songs in praise of Nyakang'o. I don't know if it was drinking the chang'aa, but I soon began to enjoy the escapades. I even began to believe that I was going to get a good job out of it, despite the fact that I had not done especially well in high school.

One day, our vehicle -- an old Toyota pick-up with bald tires and a tethered canvass top -- broke down several miles from home, in the territory of the KANU, the long-ruling Kenya Africa National Union. While my fellow campaigners and I were walking home, we were ambushed by KANU hooligans, a mob that included several policeman. Some in our group were arrested and thrown in jail. Those of us lucky enough to escape walked a dozen miles to inform Nyakang'o. But he refused to bail our friends out of jail.

While my fellow campaigners and I were walking home, we were ambushed by KANU hooligans, a mob that included several policeman.

Nyakang'o's reluctance to help us confirmed my fears that if he won he would not help me or any of the young people I had recruited land a job.

The memory of confrontations with rival political youth gangs and how close to harm I had come that year convinced me to stay away from politics. Two years later, I left Kenya for the United States. Here, it was easier to keep my promise, since, like most Africans, I had no interest in U.S. politics. At gatherings, if my friends started to debate the politics of their home countries, I usually excused myself.

In 2004, nearly 10 years after I had left Kenya, Barack Obama was elected to the U.S Senate, though I was among the last to know. Due to my disinterest in politics, I had no idea that Obama had been elected or that his father had been from Kenya until I read the online comments of a fellow Kenyan, who announced that a "Kenyan has been elected to the Senate, the part of Congress from which America picks its presidents." Kenyans, it seemed, had already noticed that Obama might one day run for president of what they considered the most powerful nation in the world.

When Obama finally declared his candidacy in the Democratic primary, the Kenyan diaspora exploded with celebrations. Just one example came on February 11, 2007, the day after Obama's announcement about his candidacy for the White House. Kenya lost a match against the United States in a little-known rugby competition held in San Diego. Unfazed, the Kenyan fans at the stadium burst into chants of "Obama ni wetu! Obama ni wetu!" The Americans won the match, but the Kenyans were saying, "Obama, he belongs to us."

"[Obama's] father was an African immigrant, so it is natural for Africans to support him," declared Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, who made history in 2006 by becoming the first Muslim American elected to Congress. "He does have the sensibility of what it means to immigrate, and he has family in another country."

Ellison, whose district is the most ethnically diverse in the state, was a direct beneficiary of African immigrants' growing interest in American politics.

With at least 14 million naturalized citizens living in America today, a successful campaign to harness the immigrant vote may make politicians rethink their stance on immigration.

With at least 14 million naturalized citizens living in America today, according to U.S. Census estimates, a successful campaign to harness the immigrant vote may make politicians rethink their stance on immigration.

"It's critically important for the immigrant community to have a sense of its own power," Ellison said. "Immigrants will know that, 'Hey, we help people get elected. And if you want us to work on your campaign, you have to speak to the issues we care about.'"

Meanwhile, each day brings new evidence of the fervor with which my fellow African immigrants are engaged in the 2008 presidential race. At a dance club in Minneapolis, I came across two West African men engaged in a heated debate about the candidates, apparently unconcerned that they had paid a cover charge to dance. The Nigerian man said he was a Republican and would vote for Senator John McCain.

"What?" the man from Ghana shouted in disbelief.

For nearly an hour, they argued about each of their candidate's stance on immigration, policies toward Africa, the U.S. economy and the need to support "a fellow brother."

Pre-Obama, you'd never have seen anything like this among African immigrants. I stood listening, fascinated. Eventually, I was drawn into the debate myself, asking questions of both men. By the time the music stopped and the conversation ended, I realized my heart was pounding. I had not experienced a rush of political adrenaline like this since my youthful days of bare-knuckled campaigning in Kenya.

But this time, no one threw a single stone.

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