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In Obama's rise, Kenyans see lessons for Africa

For Kenyans, the election of a young black man with direct roots in Africa has a resonance that goes far beyond home-town pride.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / January 20, 2009

Tears: Nairobi shopkeeper Peter Gatari says Kenyans cried with joy when Obama was elected.

Scott Baldauf/The Christian Science Monitor

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When Barack Obama takes the oath of office, Dickens Odhiambo will be watching it on TV and dancing in the streets of Kibera, Kenya's largest slum.

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For Mr. Odhiambo, an accountant who belongs to the same Luo tribe that Obama's father came from, the election of a Kenyan-American marks a turning point in the way he perceives the world.

"It is not only Luos, it is also Kenyans; it is not only Kenyans, but it is other Africans who are excited," says Odhiambo, standing on a street corner in Kibera. "The change that Obama talked about, we believed in it, and finally there was change. Democracy worked. I would urge other African leaders, like Mugabe, to learn from this change, to emulate Obama."

For Africans, the election of a young black man with direct roots in Africa has a resonance that goes far beyond home-town pride. The 2008 election showed that even a nation like the US – with its troubled history of slavery and its lingering attitudes on race – can elect a man who comes from a minority group, but who has promised to represent the nation as a whole.

On a continent like Africa, where people often vote under conditions of intimidation and violence, where leaders serve the interests of themselves and their own ethnic group, Obama's election is a brush-up lesson in what democracy is all about.

"Mr. Obama's leadership should act as a mirror to us and to our leaders," says Enock Aloo Nyagol, an attorney from Nairobi. "He puts to shame our leaders and their untoward ways."

Referring to the contentious Kenyan elections of 2008, where more than a 1,500 Kenyans were killed in postelection violence, the young attorney adds, "It is time for us to sit back and do a soul-searching on the way we conduct our public affairs."

For Africans, democracy remains an enigma – a high-sounding concept that rarely lives up to its promise.

From presidential elections in Nigeria and Congo in 2006, and in Zimbabwe in the spring of 2008, fraud, intimidation, and outright violence are all too common.

In Kenya, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere, close elections are often an excuse for political parties to unleash violence to achieve power that elections don't deliver.

For Kenyans, the election of a Obama is a vicarious pleasure. Nowhere is the Obama mania greater than in Kogelo, where cousins and distant relatives have already begun to slaughter cows in preparation for a barbecue to end all barbecues.

Obama's stepgrandmother, Sarah Obama, won't be there, unfortunately.

She's flown to Washington to attend the inauguration in person.