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  Sunday, July 4, 2004


Lefts face it, Obama is not our own
By Wallace Kantai
It is looking increasingly likely that Barrack Obama will be elected in November as Senator of the State of Illinois. The number of prospective voters has increased after his presumptive opponent in the election was felled by accusations of sexual impropriety.

Simultaneous with Obamas rising stature is the increasing desire by Kenyans to identify with him. Typical newspaper headlines and messages flying around the Internet tend to lead with the theme "Kenyan-linked", or "Kenyan-American", or even, erroneously, "Kenyan-born".

People like identifying with winners, especially when they can be linked to them in a direct way. However, Kenyans are mistaken in attempting to claim Mr Barrack Obama as one of their own, for two very important reasons.


Difficult childhood

First, the only link that Obama has to Kenya is so tenuous as to almost be nonsensical. If you havent heard the story by now, the short version is that his father was a Kenyan scholar in the United States, who married an American woman, and left them when Obama was a toddler. He was brought up mainly by his grandparents and went through a difficult childhood and early adulthood, including a visit to Kenya to attempt to understand his now-deceased father.

Obamas story is so typically American, that he will probably end up a poster boy for the possibilities offered by that country. According to a feature in New Yorker magazine, he was a black man whose immediate family was all white, and whose racial confusion led to his experimentation with drugs. He made it out of that rut and his appeal is now far removed from race. He is a surprisingly calm politician and unwilling to carry out his political contests in a mud bath. With the Democratic Party in America so sorely in need of an idealistic, honest and credible torchbearer, it would not be difficult to imagine candidate Obama, and, even possibly, President Obama.

More importantly, we have little claim to Obama as a Kenyan given our track record of how we treat those who attempt to fit into the Kenyan fabric, when their ancestry is elsewhere. We have such a negative reaction to immigrants that xenophobia could easily be part of our central political message.

We are psychologically and politically predisposed to rejecting outsiders. For Kenyans, whether as official government policy or as evidenced in our private interactions, refugees are a bothersome lot of people poor, smelly folk whose sole mission in life is to compete with us for scarce resources. We keep them in refugee camps in places that are out of sight. For the few lucky ones who manage to make it into our cities, we put them into ethnic ghettoes such as Eastleigh, hoping they will keep to themselves.

The Kenya Government sees refugees in two main ways. One, as an international problem that we are unlucky enough to face and which should be taken away from us as soon as possible. Two, as a source of instability, especially because they are seen to be importers of the illegal arms circulating in the country.

The surprising thing is how much we may have missed out by our refusal to integrate outsiders into Kenyas central life. Somalis are acknowledged as some of Africas most entrepreneurial people. The fact that their country imploded is an act of historical circumstance that can happen to other Africans given their unilateral borders. Their landing in our borders, from all social classes was an opportunity that we clearly missed.

The Ugandan case is even worse. In the worst years of the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Ugandans sought refuge in Kenya. These were the very best of the political, social and economic classes, yet we looked at them, again, as a source of potential embarrassment and instability. Ugandans in Kenya were hounded mercilessly by the police and many were understandably glad to go back home as soon as they could.


Chilly relationship

In the 2001 presidential election in Uganda, almost all the candidates from Yoweri Museveni and his chief opponent, Kizza Besigye, on down had spent significant time in Kenya. For Museveni, at least, these were not times to be remembered with great fondness. He was constantly on the run from policemen such as Patrick Shaw and it is no wonder that relations between Uganda and Kenya, at least at presidential level, always alternated between chilly and lukewarm.

Against this background, Kenyas applause and ringing endorsements of Barrack Obama sound a bit hollow. Kenyans would like him to succeed in a country that has readily welcomed its progeny but it is loath to accept anyone who has not been fully Kenyan for uncountable generations. Even Nubians, who have lived in Kenya for a century or more, have no rights as Kenyans.

Kenyans are entitled to support Obama and to celebrate the proximity of a Kenyan descendant at the centre of American power, but they should do so in the full knowledge that they are hypocrites.

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