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Obama: The Kenya Connection

Barack Obama.

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.

Edwin Okong'o.

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,, a Kenyan online discussion forum, regularly posts and forwards messages from Obama's campaign.

Back Home

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.

Raila Odinga.

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, 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.

Obama campaigning

Obama on the campaign trail. Photo: Matthew Wright [Creative Commons]

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.


Zemo Gamboa - Chicago, Illinois
Not voting for Obama for me, as a Chicagoan, has more to do with the absurdity of a viable Chicago Politician as candidate for President than Obama's race or heritage. But adding to the lack of confidence, again typical of a Chicago politician, is Obama's constant squirming in defining his identity to different groups as David Axelrod coaches him as to when it's safe to appear urban elite black, or international, or Suth'n downhome kindly Church folk, or Middle America Red State...he is absolutlely pathetic, ridiculous and so is the constant cushioning and cover-up he gets from a friendly media every time he puts his inexperienced feet in his big, greasy, ever-grinning mouth.

I am a White Australian who knows very little about Kenya apart from Princess Elizabeth's visit there many years ago before she became Queen.
I was delighted to read the article above and see that your ancient pride in your offspring has remained very much intact.Go Kenya!

chapel hill, nc
Should the dark man I meet at a cocktail party turn out to be African, rather than African-American, I would "perk up," as you say, because he is exotic and can give me a view into a culture and political situation about which I know little. Prejudice against African-Americans has absolutely nothing to do with it.

Your reporter writes: "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."I think this may be more related to feeling less likely to be begged from, mugged, or scammed by the educated wealthy Kenyan who could get a visa and pay to travel to the US. I think it might have something to do with traits often identified with poverty which seems to cause a higher rate of crime.

david - oakland, california
George Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and friends have trashed the Republican party. It's dead in the water for 2008 and the GOP faithful know it. The Bush legacy is a failed, miserable war, a battered economy and a legacy of stupid arrogance. There's no way on God's green earth that poor John McCain is going to be elected president after what Bush and his GOP have done to America.No matter what happens in this election, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States, and the Democrats will control Congress. And let's be honest, that's a good thing for us and for the world.

I find it very interesting that the "son" "belongs" to the father. Hence the mother is insignificant.
The bit about them expecting Obama to pour money over their wounds is not surprising. That is also the root of his support here. To hear him and Hillary on the campaign trail is nothing more than a contest to see who can promise the most to the largest crowd, all the while pretending there is someone else who is going to pay for it.

Adrian Owens - St. Petersburg, Florida
I totally agree with bobby Ja Imbo. Obama represents a true American in that sense. Although, I do believe that he should do more to ease the tension in Kenya.

I don't understand why Frontline/World has printed this as reporting. This a commentary and should be better noted as such. This is all part of the overall image hype that Obama has successfully generated with a largely biased media. Obama himself did not grow up in Kenya, living as a Kenyan. It'd be like me claiming to have some right to an election in the Middle East b/c one of my parent's is from there. And everyone calls him black, completely disregarding his white mother and relatively white upbringing. Again, this is just more liberal guilt propaganda. The scary thing to me is that Obama is generating the same fervor amongst progressives that Bush generated about conservatives 8 years ago.

Charles Warner - Los Angeles, California
Why does CNN continually say that such and such a state has a large African-American population and so Barack Obama should do well there? Can you imagine if CNN said since suchand such a state is mostly white then Hillary Clinton should do well there?This is outright racism.

Philadelphia, PA
As a white American, and an American who sees the spread of Islam as inexorable and non-desirable, I am concerned over Barack's heritage...Obama has a lot of appeal here. He has a good chance to become President. I am not sure if that is a good thing or not. It is a dangerous world... Experience helps and Mr. Obama has none.

Which Kenyans are you saying give overwhelming support to Obama? The Luos? I would hate to see the day he becomes more than a Senator!! You can already see Raila is trying to use the 'Jaluo' connection!!I have nephews who are American and it is exciting to think that one day they might even be given the same opportunities. I would expect them to be Americans with a Kenyan connection but not a tribe. That brings them right back home with the ugliness of tribalism Kenyan style!!If Obama would behave more like a Kenyan than a Jaluo, of course we would all identify with him. As long as he remains a Luo - he is just like any other so why get excited?

Amherst, MA
I am an Americna expatriate living in Kenya. Obama's recent reaching out to both Odinga and Kibaki is just an extension of the message he gives -- that we can be unified. Kenyan tribalism goes back to the British colonialism when the Brits encouraged the division of tribes, favoring the Kikuyu. Tribalism is not necessarily a negative thing, and we are just as "tribal" in the States. I have experienced the last three elections in Kenya and there is always controversy and corruption. Obama has a message that people all over the world can find hope in. You cannot have change and hope without taking a risk. Obama gives people back their voices. I believe he can help restore our international image in the world based on his honesty and core belief that we can all find common ground.By the way, Barak means "blessings" in Kiswahili.....

Sophia Tong - Dublin, CA
Excellent article Edwin! Very enlightening, information and well-written.

Kwesi Wilson - Hayward, CA
I'm not Kenyan but a die-hard Obama fan. Keep up the good work, Edwin

Bronx, New York
An interesting and poignant article, but Kenyan support for a U.S. presidential candidate is inconsequential. And whether Barack is black or not should be as inconsequential as whether he is "black enough", which has to be the most outrageous thought entertained. And while I am loathe to say it, it seems many in our African-American community need to abandon the "us" vs. the rest of the world mentality. Not that there isn't obvious discrimination but reversing it is not the answer. In fact I fear a backlash from the win in South Carolina by other ethnicities only because it makes Barack "the black candidate" and not everyone's candidate. Where the divisiveness came from first is no more an issue than which came first, the chicken or the egg. We all must fight to get beyond our past and that includes all races.

bobby Ja Imbo - Wien, Austria
Why does everybody refer to Obama as black and not white? Yet all along he grew up with his mum and grandparents, which makes him more white to me than black. Although personally I would like to identify Obama with my tribe the Luo (Kenya). I think for most blacks in my village if they didn't know his story, they would call him white (msungu). I think Obama is special because he represents all these cultures (white, African Americans, Asians, Africans, Muslims, etc...) from his looks, character, parentage, mannerisms, apeal, relations, experience and pride. I guess that is what America needs more, one who can unite them home and away, and not a mere colour figure...

Well, Obama's big victory in South Carolina settles one thing: he can win the black vote.

Charles - Nairobi, Kenya
Your coverage of Obama is fair, but you should have included a bit of the history of African Americans with the background of Obama's candidacy... Obama hasn't shied away from his background and to me that is a major plus. You don't have to follow everything your relatives did then or now to make a good leader but you need to know or experience them to know yourself in the first place. Obama knows himself well in that light. He can then move forward to make judgement on which way to follow. His own way chosen from a number of those experiences. His distant relationship with Odinga cannot determine his character at all.

David Araujo - Berkeley, Ca
Very smart and educational article about Kenyans in Africa and living in the US. However, I worry about the divisions you describe between Africans in America and Afro-Americans. Should we say "Divide to conquer"? Who divides? Who conquers?I don't agree that Africans in America and Africans-American should be divided or simply defined by [stereotypyes]... I think that there is an intentional strategy to brainwash people to think that way...For example, take Arnold Schwarzenegger, I haven't heard that Europeans In America and white Americans could be divided in two groups when it came to deciding to vote for him. The majority elected him. I am so sorry to see the dispute in Kenya, the poor pays the more expensive price. Isn't it what happened in New Orleans?I am happy to see this great article and for sure its time to change with Barack Obama for 2008 and 2012!!!NOTE: Ophra for Vice-President.

Leo Juma - Riverside, California
Mr. Okongo, I enjoyed reading your insightful article - `Obama: The Kenyan Connection.' Barack Obama is a typical American -- a product of both a biological and social melting pot. Isn't his connection to Kenya and Africa similar to that of the late John F. Kennedy to Ireland and Europe? And, just like the feelings that Kennedy had for Ireland and Europe, hopefully, when Obama makes it to the White House, he will look at Kenya and Africa with special sensitivity and sympathy.

adam - san francisco, california
Well, that's an interesting take on the Obama candidacy. I hope all will rally behind him and that he wins in South Carolina. I actually think Hillary would be fine, too. Anyone looks great after Bush, who may be the worst president we've ever had.

Annecy, huate savoie

Very educational, enlightening and engaging article that explains the Obama - Kenya and African-American and immigrant dynamic.

East Lansing, Michigan
Dear Edwin:I admire the way you have developed this story. You have clearly traced Obama's roots and summarized effectively the origin of the tension between African immigrants and African Americans.However, I noted two faults in the story. One, I find your portraying Raila [Odinga] as simply a man with a controversial history to be too sketchy that readers who don't know him well may take your point as fact. That is dangerous. Raila's history may be 'controversial' but positively so. This dimension misses in your story.Two, just commenting about the mis-placed tention between African immigrants and African Americans, and how it may affect negatively Obama's dream of becoming the first Black US President is not enough. You could scored highly (4.0!) if you demonstrated how misplaced this tension is, and how Obama's Kenyan roots should really matter as far his leadership qualities matter!The two gaping flaws notwithstanding, I still admire your story

Raven Payne - Franklin, KY
For Kenyans to be able to vote for Barack Obama is crazy...I am African-American mix with Native-American and his name alone is enough to turn many blacks off. When I vote it will not be because he is black...