Obama for Kenya’s President

July 1, 2008

Today was the best use of $ 4 that I have ever made in my life: I bought the Obama song!!! Unless it has come to the states since I left, I doubt many of you have heard the Obama song. It is a reggae song with amazing lines such as

“well this is not about class…make no mistake it’s the changes for all the people in need, Shout Out Barack Obama, Barack Obama…”

Basically I have been looking for this song ever since I got to Kenya. If you think Obama is popular in America, you really need to come to Kenya. Seriously, people are obsessed!

The very first question I get asked after I say I’m from America is “Are you going to vote for Obama?” This question is often followed by an in-depth discussion of American politics that, in my personal opinion, is often much better informed than conversations with Americans. No joke, people here know all about Clinton and McCain’s policies. They even know a bit about good old Arnold and tend to find the fact that he’s a politician hilarious. Their depth of knowledge is really, really impressive and a little surprising.

Or is it surprising? I mean, Obama’s father is Kenyan and what country wouldn’t want “one of their own” to rule the most powerful country in the world? But I think the love of Obama goes a little deeper…

I’ve been reading the papers here a lot and pretty much every paper has had a least one article on Obama. I think that Kenyan’s love Obama because they desperately want him to be their President. If not him, then someone who embodies Obama’s honesty, anti-corruption, youth and general humbleness.

To put it crudely, Kenyan politics is corrupt. As I mentioned before, Kenyan Members of Parliament get paid more than any other politician IN THE WORLD. The salary of the MPs is currently a topic of hot debate, with the MPs arguing that their large salaries are necessary because of the hand-out culture of Kenya.

By “hand-out culture” they mean the fact that it is customary for politicians to go to voters, hand them ksh 10 and tell them to vote for them. MP’s are judged by the number of harambees (fund-raisers) that they attend. Kenyans hold harambees for funerals, weddings, illnesses etc and they expect their politicians to attend and contribute money.

As MP Ojodeh said in an article in The Standard, “We must address the issue of joblessness in rural Kenya. Villagers demand money not just from MPs but from anyone who is working…”

After people question me about American politics and are satisfied that I too share their love for Obama and dislike of McCain, I usually question them about Kenya. One of my favorite questions to ask is “Why is Kenya poor?” I explain that Kenya seems like a country so rich in natural resources and with such potential, it seems strange that Kenya has had negative growth rates over the past couple of decades.

Everyone tells me the same thing, “It’s our politicians. We’re poor because of our politicians.”

So then I ask them why they vote for such politicians and they tell me that it’s not that easy.

Not only do Kenyan politicians give out money, they also (as evidenced by the recent conflict) exploit tribal tensions. Before coming to Kenya, the idea of a “tribe” brought up images of a small village and people dressed in feathers dancing around a fire. That sounds horrible but I think that the idea of a “tribe” was just such a foreign concept to me. In actuality, “tribes” are a lot like different races here. While the difference may not always be apparent physically, the moment you tell someone which part of the country you come from they can tell which tribe you are in.

In a sense, tribalism in Africa is similar to racism in America. However, unlike America where the majority of the population is in one tribe (white people), in Kenya there are around 73 different tribes. Each tribe has different stereotypes and people from the same tribe tend to help out their fellow tribesmen.

This becomes a problem when one tribe in consistently in power. Both Jomo Kenyatta (the first President) and Kibaki (the current President) are Kikuyu. Moi was a different tribe but he tended not to be as tribalistic, just generally bad for everyone. This means that the Kikuyu people are more likely to have government jobs, have better schools and even to have better roads. The tribalism is apparent when you consider that the Central Valley (a Kikuyu dominated region) has really nice roads but Kakamega (mostly Luya) has horrible roads full of potholes.

So when Kenyans see a young politician who not only refuses to take campaign money from the government but also is able to bring together different groups in America that have tensions, they “shout out Barack Obama, Barack Obama…”