Election 2008 The World is Watching

Video Report

Kenya: Sweet Home Obama

Expectations weigh heavy on Kenya's native sons

BY Edwin Okong'o October 30, 2008
top election stories What do you think?  Share your thoughts here.




Series Producer

Senior Producers

Kenya Assistant Producer

Senior Associate Producer

Associate Producer

Interactive Design

Associate Interactive Producer

Senior Interactive Producer

PBS Vote 2008



Edwin Okong'o is a journalist, humorist, memoirist and commentator. He is an Associate Editor at New America Media. Okong'o has written and edited for numerous print and online publications, and has appeared on several radio and television shows. His essay, The Day I became a Man, was a finalist in the 2007 Mark of Excellence Awards of the Society of Professional Journalists.

My Kenyan Life
When I was a child growing up in the 1980s, Makairo, my birthplace in southwestern Kenya, was self-sufficient and traditional. Because of its mountainous geography, it had become exempt from the worst excesses of British colonialism. The bucolic surroundings wouldn't last forever; the days of total dependence on subsistence farming were slowly ending.

The idea of becoming a modern man in a modernizing state was inspiring, yet my life was plagued by violence, and I craved to escape. In efforts to "improve" me at school, I endured severe beatings from my teachers. And at home I had a father who believed there was such a thing as a stupid question, and that if I were not a star student, I could be convinced to improve through a beating with a switch.

My ordeal did not end when I left home for a boarding high school. At 14, I gleefully participated when my schoolmates rioted against a corrupt headmaster who fed us cheap bug-infested cornmeal and pocketed our parents' hard-earned cash. He was eventually forced out of the school. But it did not solve the problem of being tormented by schoolboy gangs or a father who traveled half a day by bus to my school to flog me in front of my teachers and peers.

My relationship with my father became even worse when I failed the national entrance exam to university. The exam is seen as a benchmark of whether or not you will succeed in life. Failing it crushed my father. Written off as a failure, I started drinking changa'a, illicitly distilled liquor often associated with people who are going nowhere in life.

My relationship with my father became even worse when I failed the national entrance exam to university. The exam is seen as a benchmark of whether or not you will succeed in life.

But my life took a drastic turn in 1994. I managed to find a way out of Kenya when an uncle in America found me admission to a college in California. I worked to support myself and pay for my own education and that of my siblings back in Kenya. It took me more than 12 years to work my way through college and graduate school and finally to become a journalist.

There Lies the Hope

Following the post-election violence in Kenya earlier this year when tribes set against each other causing more than 1,500 deaths, American journalists expressed concern that the "beacon of hope for democracy" and "a friendly face in a rough neighborhood" was on the verge of collapse. Because of Kenya's role hosting refugees and brokering peace in the fragile Horn of Africa -- and because of its status as a U.S. ally in the war on terror -- President Bush sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to make sure the political impasse in my county came to an end.

It was the first time in recent history that the U.S. has sent a high-ranking government official to resolve a conflict in Africa.

Kenyan classroom.

Children participate in class at the Obama Primary School in southwestern Kenya.

Kenya is even more in focus today with the possibility that Senator Barack Obama, whose father came from Kenya, could be the next U.S. president. Obama's ascendancy has generated interest in his roots, from people in the U.S. preparing to vote November 4, and from bystanders across the world. Part of the intrigue has come from the success of Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, and fueled by an endless flow of journalists to his father's birthplace.

Kenya's Favorite Sons

It's this growing interest to understand Kenya and its people -- and my personal story -- that prompted FRONTLINE/World to send me back to my homeland to see what my countrymen are saying about the presidential race.

"Sweet Home Obama," the video report I came back with, looks at Kenyans' hopes and expectations of Obama -- rooted in the belief that if he becomes president, he will alleviate the country's problems.

Obama with his Kenyan grandmother.

Sen, Barack Obama, seen here with his grandmother on a trip to Kenya in 2006.

Most important, the story goes beyond Kenya's obsession with Obama to explain the broader expectations of Kenya's other sons -- people like me. When I read the story of Obama's father, I marveled at how his story paralleled mine, even though we grew up in different generations. We were both born in Nyanza province, sons of estranged fathers. But somehow we both managed to rise above this and excel in American institutions of higher learning.

I see my story mirrored in many Kenyans. Once they succeed, most of these men and women are expected to be the keepers of their families, villages, tribes, and even countries. They complain little as they go through agony at home and abroad to provide for their relatives. Most expect nothing in return.

Many Kenyans see Obama in this role too, saddling him with the same obligations. They have mistaken his quest to understand his roots and the relationship he has kept with his father's family to mean that he has accepted that responsibility.

In my view, Kenya is acting like a deadbeat dad who only returns many years later to claim credit for his son's success. Kenyans refuse to accept that they did not raise Obama and, therefore, they should not expect him to understand their problems.

In fact, had Kenyans raised Obama, he might have become a completely different politician -- like the ones who led Kenya into so much post-election violence. It's the failure of their local sons that has sent Kenyans looking to Obama for hope.

For the Kenyan men and women who have taken over where government has failed, Obama offers inspiration. In my case, Obama's story has inspired me to begin writing my own memoir. His story has encouraged me to learn more about a father I lived with but never quite knew.

-- Edwin Okong'o

share your reactions

Edwin, so what if your family expects more from you than you able to give or provide? Doesnt that make you want to work harder to be able to meet their needs? Kenyans have expectations on what the Obama win will do for them, but then, keep in mind that while he may never meet any of these demands Kenyans will always be proud of him. The same thing applies to you. Your father may have been very demanding and as a result you two never seemed to agree on anything. Hwever, make no mistake about it, he was proud of you for giving him something to brag about when he was with his peers.I am not sure about my reaction to your piece yet but one thing I do know is that you didnt go out of your way to try and show the other side of the story...

Still Kenya will remain what you left behind but Obama brings new light to our leadership.... Maybe fathers will not be absentees.

nyakundi okongo - nairobi, kenya
it's really true as edwin puts it. May be Obama will make the change.

A very fresh and moving piece that brings both smiles and tears. Your insight as a journalist, a Kenyan, an achiever and family member who struggles with cross cultural boundaries, as well as your ability to relate to people, made the piece unforgettable.

It truly was a fantastic "episode" May God bless Obama tomorrow in the elections!! As that Mzee said while dancing, "Obama Juu!!"""

John Mobegi - San Jose, CA
Good job Edwin. Expectations of our people from their sons and daughters abroad are real even if they are misplaced. To me it is encouraging to be looked up to as a beacon of hope for those who have none even though I cannot fulfill all their needs and wants. I am encouraged by your sentence above,"Once they succeed, most of these men and women are expected to be the keepers of their families, villages, tribes, and even countries. They complain little as they go through agony at home and abroad to provide for their relatives. Most expect nothing in return". It is indeed a challenge for those of us abroad to extend a helping hand as much as we can (that is African). Let us not forget most of us if not all of us, are abroad because of someone else's efforts - be it a parent, uncle, Aunt, cousin, friend etc. Complaints aside, we must remember where we came from and who we are, that is why Obama goes to Kogelo to see his relatives. If Obama Can why not us who were born and breed in Africa? One more thing, quit measuring our upbringing with western upbringing they will never be in harnmony. Everybody from Africa got whipped and that is what our parents knew worked. Lastly, let us make peace with our familes, give them hope, make a difference in there lives, Keep hope alive and Obama is going to win.

I would have appreciated a more balanced footage of Edwin's visit to Kenya. It's true that there are some Kenyans who are ignorant about Obama's potential presidency and their expectations are unrealistic, but what about the voice of those Kenyans who are more rational and aware of world affairs, so don't have irrational expectations? I would have liked to hear from these Kenyans too. I just thought the footage was a biased representation on what Kenyans think about the Obama's potential presidency.

Maggie Mamirembe - Nairobi, Kenya
Edwin, this gives me a mona lisa smile,at the same time reminds me of Joan of the Arc. You have touched raw nerves and some(especially Kenyan) will not like it, but the truth sets you free. Like you, I had a father who did not have grey color, issues were either white or black; doing your best was for failures, and failing was not an option. I think of him very fondly and thank God for my father because if he was not who he was, I would not be sitting in an executive office, writing to you. I have a sister living in America and my brothers and her in- laws have become totally dependent on her for their living. I know she is feeling the burden but she suffers in silence. I am not surprised that some Kenyans will actually expect goodies when Obama becomes the American President. Having gone through decades of economic mess, Kenyans are living in a world of hope..and they too have dreams. Hope is the only thing that one holds onto when things get really tough. But the truth be told, Obama is an American and not Kenyan and the American interest wlll come first. The outcome of the elections does not matter, Obama is already the president of America, he has changed the world's perception of black people, he has gone to "where the eagles dare"...

Deirdre English - San Francisco, California
Terrific example of combining personal and political journalism to tell a deeper story! I am hopeful that Obama can inspire Kenyans and Americans, as Nelson Mandela inspired people around the world,to expect the best from themselves. Okong'o sees it all with such character, humor and sound judgement--he makes a totally authoritative narrator of Kenyan reality. Can't wait for the memoir!

A magnificent piece, impressive it is also a bit sad to see how in a naive way people back in Kenya have this great expectation not only in Obama but also in their sons and daughters abroad. But if you think about it these people are living in hope.If Obama wins, their lives will be transformed. Don't we all hope for something.

Tamara Bayne - Alameda, CA
What a wonderful story and connection between you and Kenya and Barack and Kenya. The expectations for him if he is elected are enormous here in the US, they are as big in Kenya. So much pressure for one man.

Ajiambo Sifuna. - Milwaukee, US of A
Allow me to be a dissenter Ed.
First off, I have learned in life to appreciate my Kenyan fathers; as terrible as they may appear in comparison to Western fathers on parenting. I sit here in my apartment and thank God for my father; a blessing in disguise. If he had never been aloof, I'd never have known what it means to set out on your own and fight it out.Yes! Obama senior may have been an absentee, but the junior himself concurs that the persistent letters senior sent and urged him to meet his Kenyan blood shaped who he is today. A desire to live to senior's charisma and academic achievement that his white grandparents talked about senior, at the same time watching out not to make mistakes senior made in marrying and abandoning his kids.It is easy to sit here and judge senior, count him a zero, but none of us walked in his shoes. I have also learned that if we take time to talk to our 'aloof' fathers, we will understand each other. Believe me, like any other parent, they only wanted the best for us. They all feel our pain.It is simplistic to conclude that Kenyans view Obama as a source of manna. Most I have met do not think so, not those in Chicago, nor those in Bungoma. For most, it is simply to vindicate the black man. That indeed we can be something too...not the bar that colonialists and racists set for us. Less than 100 years ago, a black man was considered a fifth of a person, a consideration entrenched in the constitution of America. Yes! The only super power.Obama's presidency is more symbolic and inspirational, than it is of black messiahship.For those of us who have taken Mcain's past, the fellow voted against MLK day and proudly supported flying the confederate flag atop a state capitol, knowing what confederates stood for. Heck, he could not stand looking at Obama in his first debate. That, this men can indeed let a colored man be a commander in chief is a new direction in the Americas, and the world.Lastly, it is not about doling out dollars to Africa that simplistically, but proposing somewhat Africa-friendly policies.So my dears, it is not to be looked at in such a simplistic manner. Look beyond the five digits on your hand, see what I see.

Elijah Kombo - Khartoum, Sudan
Eke nekerage Omogaka Okong'o!!!!!!!You actually shed tears ama ni crocodile tears. Come back in 2012 and let us get Kenya out of the political impasse.
Your story is basically true, hilarious and moving.

Lakeville, Minnesota
That is a wonderful, well researched presentation. I hope it will change somebody's hard heart and solve their differences with their family and friends while they have time on this world.

Linah Ododa - South River, New Jersey
This story touched my heart. It just shows how proud most of our Kenya brothers are of who they really are. Kenyans! Home is home. Great work Edwin. Two thumbs up!!!!!!

Ciku Kimani - Nairobi, Kenya
How you have covered so much in about 1,000 words! Living in Nairobi, it's tragically fascinating to watch news especially from Kisumu (Obama Snr ancestral home) of the kind of expectations they have when he finally enters the White House! Bottom line, Obama is American, not Kenyan! I think he will avoid doing any direct favors for Kenya, especially as his critics are watching and waiting for him to do that! Reminds of me how Odinga's people (also Obama's people - and I don't mean that in a bad way) expected him to do wonders when he elevated to 2nd top seat! Has he done anything special, has he @$#&?!

This is the best piece of on the ground news reporting I have seen in a while. As a Kenyan American you make me proud Okong'o, I believe my Obama vote will not go in vain.asante kwa habari kamili.

Nelima Kerre - Minneapolis, MN
Edwin I love it! This is by far the most real portrayal of the Kenyan reactions to the Obama candidacy. Great job! Keep it up!

Bloomington,IL, Illinois
Wonderful presentation. As a Tanzanian and proud East African, I was so touched and moved by your presentation.

Great piece! Nice to see a different angle and hear some new perspectives on the U.S. presidential race.

Kenyans are not deadbeat dads. When you are in a position of influence a lot is expected of you.

Minneapolis, MN
Very nice. Edwin Okong'o is a very good journalist to explore the international perspective of Africans immigrants in America and provide their view point. So important in today's fast pace and growing markets. Understanding how we each think was shown in a compassionate manner. Obama comes from a diverse Hawaiian culture of sharing and "getting along." You have to do that when you live on a island state. As an American, he has and will look to all communities and nations in transition like Kenya, and I 'm sure he will reach out to support their growth. Thank you Edwin O. for your story and perspective!-rafikicov

Esther Shaffer - Fredericksburg, TX
Thanks SO much for sharing this well-balanced production. I'm sending it on to others. I grew up there, and worry about some Kenyans' unreal expectations about what Obama can do for them personally. I hope this video is shown widely among schools there.

Armstrong Ongera, Jnr. - Nairobi, Kenya
This is certainly an excellent project.The world should understand what is on the ground,and you have reported as it is. Best, Armstrong

Maggie Jarry - Minneapolis, Minnesota
I loved this article about Kenyan people's expectations of their family members and of their hope for Obama. We in the United States need to understand how important our politics are to others in the world. To hear and see Edwin's story helped me understand the experience of many of my African friends that live in the United States.

Adam Hochschild - San Francisco, California
A fine, very moving story, which I think says a great deal about the pressures that someone with roots in Africa--or any poorer part of the world--feels when he or she has done well in the U.S. I very much liked the way Edwin Okong'o wove his and Obama's stories together. A fine piece of filmmaking.

La Crosse, WI
Aura emailed me the link to these reports.
I've read a lot about Africa over the years. It's tough to find feel-good aspects to its realities. The media (evidently, especially in Kenya) struggle to concoct warm and fuzzy Obama/Kenya stuff. Your reports are accurate and refreshing.BTW I now think Barack will win. It was McCain's election to lose and signing up Palin sealed his fate.PS: Don't waste your time sending money to Africa. Send it to me...

Raquel Maria - Los Angeles, California
A sweet and sensitive story about returning home and the emigrant's experience. It'll stick with me. Thanks.

Dickson Gisiora - Nairobi, Kenya
Fantastic. if you are in Kenya...this is how real things can be. No more words.

Singeli Agnew - Albany, CA
This is such a bittersweet and poignant story - thank you Edwin.