A Report from Kenya: Parsing a Native Son


This piece was written just before the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America on January 20, 2009.

Has Change Really Come?

Thousands crowd around transistor radios in Nairobi and all around Africa from Goma to Mogadishu. Far away in Chicago, a once upon a time “skinny kid with a funny name” stands before an ecstatic crowd. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,” he begins, “who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” That man, that black man, is Barack Obama. And in that moment, as he speaks and America applauds, as his image and words are beamed to the world from one satellite to the next, across cellular networks and along fiber-optic cables, that son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas is American Zeitgeist personified. We cannot see it in his demeanor but we can hear it in his words: “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

But has change really come?

History is being made in America, yet even as a black man fulfills Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream by being judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin, on the same day, out in California, Arizona and Florida, the wee gains earned by another estranged minority demographic are being rolled back. On this day of momentous change in America that puts a black man on his way to the White House, the right of same-sex couples to live in legal matrimony is denied.

And what more can one expect in the electoral system of democracy where the onus is placed upon millions of individuals to say “yes” or “no” to the existential questions of life and liberty? To choose either Republican or Democrat where the devil they know is somewhere in between? When one man comes and appeals to people of all races and creeds across the pre-set boundaries of Red and Blue, what he gains is the burden of their divergent expectations.

As Obama’s presidency turns from dream into reality, so must these mounting expectations face the cold shoulder of reality. America must realize that Obama’s win is not a revolution. It is an evolution of the American democratic process. It is an evolution to a point of perfecting the political sleight of hand that all democracies aim for: the endorsement by the people of the maintenance of the status quo, or a simulacrum of it, that the power elite can live with. That realization must begin in America and travel the entire globe right down to Obama’s fatherland—my country Kenya.

Who is Obama?

Just like the rest of us mortal, non-American-President-Elects, there are a lot of things that Obama is or is not. What we do not know we can only speculate, but to keep that speculation within reason is to ask too much from most Obama watchers. Some have posited that since Obama is not a descendant of slaves, he does not have the deep seated resentment for white people that is said to characterize most Americans of African descent. But wait a minute, says Ben Macintyre writing for The Times of London, (1) “Barack Obama is no admirer of British colonialism, to judge from his writings, but the discovery that the British authorities tortured his grandfather may well deepen any animosity.”

Obama’s Kenyan grandfather was tortured by the Brits at the height of Kenya’s independence struggle. This story was quickly picked up by all the major papers in the UK and even got a helping hand across the pond by The Huffington Post. (2) I fail to see how his (alongside that of several UK Labour Party MPs in the ’50s) not being a fan of British colonialism makes him a danger to British-American partnership.

That said, Obama is in fact quite distanced from the realities of Kenyan colonial history. Obama did not grow up in a Kenya conflicted by the neocolonialist historical revisionism in school and the whispers of the savage brutality of the white man at home. And if it is true that Obama’s grandfather was arrested, jailed, and tortured for two years, it does not make Obama, by default, a radical.

What is particularly spurious in Macintyre’s article are his attempts to connect Obama’s grandfather to the violence of Mau Mau. The Mau Mau revolt lasted between 1952 and 1960. And even considering Britain’s reaction to it, which was the detention without trial of tens of thousands of Kikuyus and the villagisation of the rest of them, Mau Mau was a Kikuyu problem. If Obama’s grandfather had come from fighting on the British side in the second World War, that he was jailed in 1949 does not mean that he was a member of Mau Mau but of at least one of a host of outlawed organizations. That organization could have been the Kikuyu Central Association (and Macintyre’s article agrees with this), even though he was a Luo, or even a trade union. Such movements were outlawed not because they were violent, Marxist or evil in anyway anyone can think of in modern Britain but because they sought a decent level of African representation in government. The violence would come later, long after Obama’s grandfather had been released from jail, and as Obama points out in his memoirs he was jailed for over six months and later found innocent. Obama does not dwell on it, who are we to?

To accuse Barack Hussein Obama of a genetic predisposition to militarism is, and I say this tongue in cheek, to confuse him with Thomas Baptiste Morello. That is the Kenyan-American who rages against every and any machine of power including Obama. Rocker par excellence and guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, Morello is an ethnic Kikuyu. Yes, he is from Illinois, half Kenyan, half, ahem, Irish American, too. He is in his forties, and though, unlike Obama he hasn’t won two Grammies, he has gone platinum twice. And while Obama’s links to Mau Mau and revolutionaries are rather tenuous, Morello’s father—Ngethe Njoroge, Kenya’s first ambassador to the United Nations—was a once upon a time Mau Mau guerilla, and Morello himself has funded Mexico’s Zapatista rebels.

Obama’s only claim to social change fame is his brief stint as a community organizer in Chicago which was a stepping stone to an illustrious career in electoral politics. But today, Obama is no longer a community organizer nor is he some left leaning university professor, a token black face in the dinning rooms of Bill Ayers and other radical chic whites, he is the President of the United States of America. He is not seeking to engage the system, he is the system. The buck will now stop with him. His job is to protect America’s capitalistic imperialism and the most we can ask of him is that he wears a face not as brutal as Britannia’s.

The Only Thing We Have to Fear?

If Obama is in the least given to ethnic prejudices, then the only person who would have anything to fear in Obama’s foreign policy decisions is President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya. Or so the casual Kenyan observer blinded by the pettiness of our ethnic politics would think.

In late December 2007, Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of a second presidential term after disputed elections. Immediately after this announcement, the country erupted in the most vicious sectarian violence of its post-independence history. To grossly simplify it, the violence pitted members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe against all the other tribes and particularly the Luo tribe of his arch rival in that election, Raila Odinga. The blood-letting lasted through January and most of February until a power sharing deal, brokered by former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, was signed on February 28, 2008. Scattered skirmishes continued to erupt around the country until Raila Odinga was sworn in as Prime Minister, and de facto second in command to President Mwai Kibaki. It was the arrival of the tough talking Condoleeza Rice into Kenya with a message from George Bush (5) that pushed the hand of the two principles towards a power sharing deal.

What If?

Would America’s reaction have been any different under an Obama presidency? With an ethnic Luo president of the United States of America? Hardly.

To begin with, Obama is a strong critic of Kibaki and the only statement that he has made that could be construed as being likely to guide his policy towards Kenya is that corruption must end in this country.

But assuming we are to join the long line of Obama detractors and argue that his policy towards Kenya will be informed by parochial and kindred interests, then Kibaki, though a Kikuyu, has nothing to fear. Kibaki and Obama Sr. were friends. Even more than that, Kibaki got Obama Sr. a job as an economist at the Kenyan Treasury. Obama Sr. had been fired from his earlier job as a government economist and alienated from government for his anti-government protests in the wake of his benefactor Tom Mboya’s assassination. (The scholarship that landed Obama Sr. in America and the University of Hawaii, where he met Mary Anne Dunham, future mother of President Obama, was one of many organized by Tom Mboya). This return to political favor, though, would take place after the death of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and with Mwai Kibaki’s rise to the position of Vice President and Minister of Finance.

What about Raila Odinga, who is from Obama’s Luo community? To openly support Raila in a political contest with Kibaki would be political suicide for Obama. All of America’s far Right would run roughshod over Obama yelling “Communist!” In 1965, as Obama Sr. was finishing his Masters in Economics at Harvard, Raila Odinga was on his way to the Technical University, Magdeburg in East Germany. In the height of the Post Election Violence (casually referred to as P.E.V. these days) in Kenya, many of Obama’s American detractors tried to connect him to Raila Odinga with some going as far as to suggest that Obama morally and financially supported the Raila Odinga presidential campaign. All this was not helped by Raila Odinga having told the BBC last January that he is Obama’s cousin, (6) even though that assertion has been denied by the larger Obama family. This is all eerily ridiculous, a guilt by association where the associations are nothing more than tenuous and easy to brush aside-until, that is, the accusations begin to be doled out of the hands of right wing bloggers, Jerome Corsi, and Fox News.

But that is working on the assumption that Obama’s policy decision towards Kenya will be at all informed by his personal relationships. What does Obama himself say? In an interview that appeared in The Daily Nation, in Kenya, of September 1, 2006, Obama says:

It’s educating people on the issue. There is the perception that if there’s ethnic politics the big man in the tribe is going to take care of you. But if you look at what actually happens, only a handful of people in your ethnic group are taken care of. The rest of the people, they are in the 56 per cent of the country living below the poverty line. So why commit yourself to that kind of politics? Why not look at the agenda and platform and find out what they will do for the 56 per cent who need help the most, who are committed to an anti-corruption agenda, who are moving to try [to] improve the judiciary and the police and criminal justice system? If the focus is on issues and not the ethnicity, not the personality, then you can actually hold people accountable for following through on their promises. That’s got to come, again, from the bottom up, although what we do need is the leadership willing to fulfill that role and give voice to it. Part of the reason I went to give that speech at the university is the hope that the next generation is not tied too strongly to these old perceptions.

Consider: a road accident, early December of 2008. (4) Two cars—a BMW and a Mercedes Benz—race each other down Valley Road, Nairobi. (This is happening in a country where the annual Gross Per Capita Income is less than 700 US Dollars and close to half of the population is considered to live in abject poverty.) The occupants of the two cars are a couple of young Kenyan men heading from one bar to the next. It is 3 a.m. on a school night.

Who are the participants in this drama? In the Mercedes Benz: Raila Junior. In the BMW: Pepe Kamau. To the rescue: Joseph Muhoho. Raila Junior, a Luo, is the son of Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Pepe Kamau, a Kikuyu, is the son of recently retired chief of Kenya’s Criminal Investigation Department. And Joseph Muhoho is the son of the Director of Kenya’s Civil Aviation Authority, who also happens to be the brother of Mama Ngina Kenyatta, Kenya’s first First Lady and mother to Uhuru Kenyatta the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade. (Since the time this piece was written, Uhuru Kenyatta has become the Minister of Finance.)

And there you have it. Kenya’s national cake is not shared along tribal boundaries but class ones. If Obama were drawn into supporting one or the other—Odinga or Kibaki—Kenya’s economic dynamics would not change. Rich Kikuyus and rich Luos would still only get richer while poor Kikuyus and poor Luos become poorer.

Consider: if Obama had been a Kenyan, he would not have grown up as part of this power elite. He would have been his father’s son, (7)and one of the hordes living on the proverbial “less than a dollar a day.” If Obama must remember Kenya, it is only because it makes him proud to be an American. He is what he is today not because of his Kenyan roots, but in spite of them. Obama’s success has nothing to do with Kenya and everything to do with America.

Will Change Come to Kenya?

On the day of Obama’s inauguration, Americans can stand up and cheer, and salute one moment when the words of the founding fathers of their nation ring true: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” On January 20th, Americans will celebrate, and Kenyans will join them.

But the only real change that Kenyans have seen lately is grim. For in my country, the cost of living is always on the rise, the chance of living on the downfall, and what passes for liberty—through our own sham of democracy—is the perennial pastime of recycling political thugs. Shouldn’t we Kenyans, then, leave the Americans to fête their own, and if we must honor Obama, do so by instituting change that we can call our own, change that a significant majority of Kenyans can not only believe in but live by?

1. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/africa/article5276010.ece
2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/12/03/obamas-grandfather-impris_n_1480
3. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/barackobama/3543882/Barack-Obamas-grandfather-tortured-by-British.html
4. http://allafrica.com/stories/200812050668.html
5. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/01/world/africa/01diplo.html?_r=1
6. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7176683.stm
7. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/barackobama/2590614/Barack-Obamas-lost-brother-found-in-Kenya.html

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