a battered country unites behind its most famous son

NAIROBI Barack Obama could never win a presidential election in Kenya. It’s not that he isn’t popular here.


Barack Obama could never win a presidential election in Kenya.

It’s not that he isn’t popular here. Every day, through the jumble of incomprehensible Swahili that blares through my radio, I recognize one word over and over again. “Obama, jambo-jambo-mambo-mambo, Obama … ”.

This country is obsessed with its most famous prodigal son. But while he may become the most powerful leader in the world, Obama still couldn’t win an election here if his life depended on it.

He isn’t tribal.

Ironically, that’s probably why the majority of Kenyans, regardless of their ethnicity, have united behind him to in his bid to become the next president of the United States.

As the world has recently learned, elections in Kenya are competitions based on identity. Which community a voter hails from determines how they cast their ballot. Issues, policies and ideas don’t matter as much as tribe.

Politicians know this and exploit stereotypes and fears mercilessly.

But Kenya’s universal support for Obama reveals that these divisions — fissures that tore the country apart and claimed more than 1,000 lives after its December election — are the product of its cynical political system more than hatreds lying within its people.

“Each and every tribe, be it Luo, or Kikuyu, supports Obama,” says Geofrey Odari, as we sit in his small house in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum. Outside, a Kikuyu man strips a wooden branch of bark so it can be used to build a house in the shantytown.

During the worst of the fighting, the man and other Kikuyus were targeted for beatings, expulsions or worse, says Odari.

Many of the young men working in the small compound outside his house hail from a different tribes. Together, they sheltered their Kikuyu buddy during the fighting. They realized friendship was more important than tribe, he says.

“Obama does not have tribalism,” Odari adds, proudly. “He just talks about supporting poor people.”

Obama is part Kenyan through his late father, Barack Obama Sr. Obama Sr. was once a goat herder from western Kenya who later went to school at the University of Hawaii. There, he met Obama’s American (and Caucasian) mother, Ann, whom he married.

Obama Sr., from the Luo tribe, soon divorced Ann and left her to raise Obama.

Obama grew up in Hawaii, Indonesia and the continental United States with his mother and his Indonesian stepfather.

In his memoir, Obama writes that his father once said that tribalism would likely ruin Kenya.

His Kenyan grandmother, Sarah Hussein, still lives in a small village called Kogelo.

There, she now receives a gaggle of journalists every week, who come to write predictable prose about how the possible next president of the US has an African grandmother who walks “barefoot” in Kenya and lives in a “dusty” village.

It’s perfect Hollywood, American dream material, after all.

All of this is well known to Kenyans. They realize Obama is a Luo, just like presidential candidate Raila Odinga, who claims he was “robbed” of a victory in the December poll by president Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu.

Indeed, the running joke in Kenya after the botched election was that the US will elect a Luo president before Kenyans do.

But with Obama leading Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, and without politicians inciting hatreds and fears, Obama’s tribe doesn’t seem to matter to his step-country.

“Obama comes from Kenya,” says George Mwangilwa, another casual worker in Kibera. “We don’t look at him as a Luo. We just see him as ours.”

I ask if he would be happy if Kenya were able to view its leaders as Kenyans, like Obama, rather than by their ethnicity.

“It would be very good if we did that,” he says.

Obama visited Kenya in 2006. He won the undying loyalty of the downtrodden here by visiting Kibera.

“Obama was here,” is painted in broad graffiti lettering on a steel fence along a main road in the slum.

He has also won over the middle class.

James, a writer in Nairobi who believes the middle class in the city form their own tribe — the “Nairobians” — is excited for the possibilities if Obama becomes president.

“If he wins, Kenya will be on the map,” he says. “He’s Kenya’s boy.”

But don’t think this support is about issues. Few in Kenya talk about Obama’s promises for Africa or his foreign policy stance.

As James cynically notes, many actually want Obama in power so the US will stop meddling with Africa and the rest of the world as the Republicans, dominated by neo-conservative ideology, have over the past eight years.

“The world needs someone who can run America, not someone who pushes what America wants on the rest of the world,” he says.

Back in Kibera, I meet with John, a volunteer at Carolina For Kibera, the NGO where Obama came in 2006 to deliver a speech. He shook Obama’s hand and still looks star struck.

“I support Obama because of his policies,” he says.

My friend, Salim, the manager of the NGO, sheepishly asks which policy in particular John likes. John struggles for an answer.

A man on the street hears our conversation and pipes up.

“Obama will win. America won’t vote for Clinton. She is a woman. They don’t have faith in female leaders, just like Kenya.”

Well, at least Obama has helped Kenya take another step toward curing tribalism.

 Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.

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