Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obama's Country

Commentary by Bob Gribbin

Kenya is abuzz with Obama. Remember that Kenya declared a national holiday upon receiving news of his election. Obama’s picture is painted on matatus, tee shirts, coffee mugs, and printed on kangas worn by market women. Dozens of newborn babies are now named Obama. Maasai beadwork features his image as well as the stars and stripes from the “O” of campaign posters. Matatus bear the names “Obama Express,” “Fastest Obama.” Senator beers are ordered by asking for an “Obama.” Obama’s books are jumping off the shelves. Indeed on flights in and out, I saw a dozen Kenyans avidly reading his tomes. The airwaves resound to Obama songs. Even Obama numbers have been incorporated into the dance performances by Maasai morans at tourist lodges.

Kenyans see Barrack Obama as one of their own. Many claim him as a “Kenyan” on account of his father’s nationality. Others see him as an “American” with clear Kenyan antecedents. But all agree that he makes them proud; proud to be Kenyan and proud to see in him the realization of dreams; certainly his aspirations, but also theirs. “If Obama can rise to be president of the U.S., then I too can prosper.”

During a recent visit to Kenya, I engaged wanainchi in discussions of then-president elect Obama. Most were delighted to share their views. First, they were uniformly ecstatic for him; that he had made it. A black American elected president – and a Kenyan no less! How the world has changed and how perceptions of the U.S. as a country where racial tensions held back blacks had to be re-thought? It also reaffirmed faith in democracy. Change could come if the people want it.

Secondly, what did this mean for them? By his example Obama proved that dreams could come true – by hard work and application. This inspired everyone to hope that their lives could improve and that their children could aspire to greatness.

Thirdly, what did this mean for Kenya? Most interlocutors assumed that because of his Kenyan roots, ties with America would obviously improve. Already, they had. A wealth of good feelings prevails. Additional hopes ranged from much greater economic aid to a flood of American tourists anxious to see Obama’s rural ancestral home. Kenyans noted that President Kibaki has already promised to improve infrastructure in Nyanza to include better roads, new hotels and upgrading Kisumu airport to international status. One wise observer said that even if no American largess materialized, those sorts of improvements – especially an airport that would allow western Kenya to access world flower, fish and produce markets - would be valuable. Others asked frankly if I thought American tourists would flock to Nyanza. I answered diplomatically that Kenya was wise to market the Obama connection, but that the game parks would remain the tourist draw, with perhaps Nyanza as a side trip. In that regard it was essential that game park infrastructure, especially roads, were restored to a higher standard. (Note: game park roads in, and to and from the Mara are poor).

Several thoughtful discussants verged into the impact of the U.S. election on Kenyan politics. These Kenyans were chagrinned that the U.S. had a Luo president before Kenyan did, but went on to observe that a hard fought election followed by an honest accurate count was a powerful demonstration of democracy at work; especially of the incumbent old guard gracefully giving way to change. This lesson was not lost on Kenyans and would certainly be taken into account during the next election. One man told me that Obama’s election was popular because there were no local consequences. One did not have to look over one’s shoulder when offering political commentary about Obama, Bush or McCain. American politics offered a safe way to obliquely comment on Kenyan developments.

Finally, Kenyans struck a theme that with Obama’s election America’s image in the world would change. They expressed the hope that the U.S. would shed its role as a unilateral actor and instead seek greater cooperation and coordination with the nations of the planet.

In conclusion, Kenyans rejoice in Obama’s elections seeing in it the fruition of many hopes and the conviction that a better world awaits.


Even as Obamamania unrolls apace, Kenya in 2009 is ragged. Traffic is absolutely terrible in Nairobi and Mombasa so much so that many stores and businesses have abandoned the city centers. Everyone it seems has bought a car. Yet crowds mob the sidewalks. Work is underway to bring the last section of the Mombasa highway up to a respectable standard, but even then it will remain a two lane road complete with speed bumps in all the little settlements that have sprung up along the route. Hundreds of slow moving trucks vie for space with cars driving 80 mph or better. On account of traffic it takes 6 or 7 hours to drive the 300 miles. Other roads (Voi-Taveta, Narok-Mara, Nakuru-Mau Summit) have deteriorated into catastrophic rock beds.

Unemployment is high. Both Kenya’s internal political violence of 2008 and the world wide recession are taking a toll on the economy. Tourism has been especially hard hit. Thousands of employees have been laid off because foreign visitors just are not coming. We saw few overseas visitors at the coast where in high season it ought to have been jammed. Similarly for game lodges; they were only about a third full and many of those present were residents taking advantage of cheap rates. Nonetheless the policy both by government and the tourist industry to sock it to outsiders remained in full force. Overseas visitors pay $40 per day just to be in a game park. Lodge rates go at $250-$350 per person whereas residents get the same package for only $100.

To top it all off, last season’s short rains did not materialize thus continuing the longer term drought. Pastures are down to stubble and crops are withering in the fields.

Yet, lest I be too critical, Kenya’s strength resides in her people. They are warm, outgoing, hospitable, articulate and full of life. In spite of their difficulties, Kenyans retain an optimistic outlook. They assume that matters will improve, that the rains will come, that politics will untangle, that jobs will be found and that life will be okay.