January 20, 2009

Obama Brings Hope, Optimism to Kenya

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After Barack Obama’s victory in November, many jubilant Americans who had stayed up late celebrating returned to work. This was not true in Kenya, where President Mwai Kibaki declared the Thursday after Election Day a public holiday.
James Mwaura ’10, who was born and raised in Kenya, said that although he was not in Kenya on Election Day, his Kenyan relatives told him the reaction “was even crazier” there, in the country where Obama’s father was born and raised.
Although Obama barely knew his Kenyan relatives, Mwaura said, “Lots of people feel a kinship to him.”
Similarly, Trex Desai ’10, who grew up in Kenya, said, “Everyone [in Kenya] loves him.” When Desai returned to Kenya over winter break, he saw local artisans selling everything from t-shirts to cell phones adorned with Obama’s face, including kangas, a traditional wrap-around dress worn by Kenyans.
The election was followed very closely by Kenyans — often through
Mwaura said that although he “very closely followed the election,” his sister in Kenya often knew more about it than he did.
Obama’s election has also instilled in Kenyans something more significant.
“Obama has given [Kenyans] a sense of hope,” Desai said.
The American election took place only about a year after tribal violence broke out in Kenya as a result of their own presidential election.
Nevertheless, with Obama’s win in November, Desai said, “Everyone’s so optimistic in their outlook towards life … with him in charge of the most powerful country, there’s definitely a chance for change. I don’t see how [change in Africa] could be bad.”
Emma Osore ’09, whose father is Kenyan, said Obama “put Kenya on the map. Besides the AIDS and poverty you always hear about, he put Kenya in a different light.”
Antony Kironji ’10, who emigrated from Kenya when he was 10, agreed: “[The media] portrayed Kenya accurately. I see Kenyans as peaceful, hardworking and happy people — not as violent, uncontrollable individuals as [they were] portrayed a year ago,” he stated in an e-mail.
Desai added that in addition to hope for their country, Kenyans are optimistic about their futures. He said Kenyans expect the extremely difficult process of getting into America to become easier for them. Even a chance to visit what Kenyans refer to as “the land of opportunity,” leads people to believe that “the future will be brighter for their kids,” Desai said.
Kironji, who was part of Project Kenya, a student-run international service organization that did work in Kenya last winter, was forced to flee with the group when last year’s violence erupted. Still, he expressed optimism: “Obama also incites hope to myself as well as other people in the U.S. and the world because [it] is a great example [of] what can come from hard work, determination and blessings from above,” he stated in an e-mail.
Many Kenyans also anticipate that Obama’s election will have positive outcomes in terms of race relations in America.
Osore, the daughter of a black, Kenyan father and a white, American mother, said she is fine with the fact that most people refer to Obama as “black” rather than “biracial.”
“‘Black’ is a loaded term,” she said. “‘Black’ means more for race relations.”
Similarly, Desai said, “It’s as though 50 percent of [Obama] gets canceled out. [But] that’s great because there are still racial undertones [in America].”
Osore, who is also president of the African, Latino, Asian and Native American Students Programing Board, said that with the election of a biracial president, “Things I’ve been dealing with my whole life are now on the main stage … People finally realize what I’m talking about now. It’s not as strange anymore.”
She said lately people have started comparing her to the new president.
“It’s weird. People say, ‘You’re like Obama!’ and I’m like, ‘I guess.’”
Osore thinks being biracial is part of what will make Obama a great president.
“People have a misconception that [biracial people] are confused, but I think we make good leaders. Being biracial brings Obama a lot of strengths. He can moderate different perspectives — something biracial people do all their lives.”
Although she said, “I’m not sure Obama will address race specifically because it’s still a sore subject,” she also noted that Obama’s election has “opened up new spaces to talk about race … I’m really hopeful about the dialogue being opened, and that people are talking about race in a different way. The majority of the culture hasn’t realized: it’s not just black, there’s lots of different ways to be black and represent blackness.”