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.

Scott Baldauf/The Christian Science Monitor
Tears: Nairobi shopkeeper Peter Gatari says Kenyans cried with joy when Obama was elected.
Scott Baldauf/The Crhsitian Science Monitor
Top selling item: Fred Okeyo, a Nairobi shopkeeper, holds a skirt saying "Praise Barack Obama" in Swahili.
Scott Baldauf/The Christian Science Monitor
Model? Pamela Orhruch says she hopes Kenyan politicians will learn from President Barack Obama.

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.

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.

Even in the streets of the Kenyanb capital, Nairobi, the inauguration has turned the city into a mini-Mardi Gras.

Street vendors sell T-shirts, wraparound skirts, and even woven-hemp purses adorned with Obama's trademark grin, with Obama's slogan "Yes, we can" translated into Swahili: "Ndiyo tuna-weza."

"Oh, gosh, let me tell you, when he got elected, everyone was crying," says Peter Gitari, a dreadlocked shopkeeper in Nairobi's City Market.

Obama's election will encourage Americans to come to Kenya see where Obama has come from, which will improve business for the tourism industry, Mr. Gitari believes. "Everyone in America will want to see Kenya now."

"Obama has created hope, even here in Africa," says Charles Mbugua, who says his locally produced Obama skirts are his biggest sellers. "When Obama said, 'Yes, we can,' Ah! It cuts too deep in our hearts. Look, here we have [Mwai Kibaki] as president, and after him there will be a successor. If they change like Obama, we believe things will get better in Kenya."

"He's one of us, and I think he'll be good for Kenya," says Pamela Orhruch, a shopkeeper. "I think we will now expect more from our leaders, because of Obama. Right now there is a famine, and people are dying from hunger, while our leaders are making money from food. I think it is better to expect higher from these people than to expect lower."

To be sure, many Kenyans have high expectations that Obama will use his position as US president to increase aid and business ties with Kenya, a notion that they carry from their own country's political system, where leaders are elected largely to bring benefits to their own tribes, clans, or close relations.

But David Akech, a New York University-educated businessman in Nairobi, says that Kenyans will be disappointed if they expect "their homegrown son" to behave like a Kenyan politician.

"Luos didn't elect Obama; he was elected by Americans," says Mr. Akech, who hails from Obama's same village and same ethnic group, the Luo tribe. "Obama's first allegiance is to Americans."

Africans and Kenyans in particular are almost bound to be disappointed by Obama, because of their high expectations, Akech says. But Africans should remember that Obama is not a messiah, and that Obama's greatest success thus far is simply getting elected, despite his supposed disadvantages of being a member of an ethnic minority.

"Obama is a role model, not only to me, but also to my son," says Akech, as his family eats a pizza in a posh Nairobi shopping mall. "Everything was against him in this election, and there's no way to do something great without slaying a Goliath. But now that Obama has won, my son can say: "This man can do it, I can do it, too, no matter the challenge.'"

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