Barack-mania: Not just a Western phenomenon

Graffiti in Nakuru, Kenya, supporting incumbent President Mwai Kibaki.

Ashley Goetz

Graffiti in Nakuru, Kenya, supporting incumbent President Mwai Kibaki.

It was increasingly difficult to comprehend why Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama continued to draw criticism for his lack of foreign policy experience this past summer. But maybe that was because everyone around me was cheering on his every move âÄî and they lived halfway around the world. For those living in Kenya, especially Americans, itâÄôs virtually impossible to escape the omniscient presence of Obama and the questions this NovemberâÄôs elections inevitably yield. The daily Swahili greeting of âÄúJambo. Habari yakoâÄù (Hello. How are you?), has been replaced with questions like âÄúAre you voting for Barack Obama?âÄù and âÄúWill he be your next president?âÄù His portrait made into a window decal and slapped on the windows of public buses was a particularly trendy accessory this year, as well as his campaign t-shirts, shipped straight from the United States. Even the name âÄúBarack ObamaâÄù has become one of the most popular names in Kenya. And it appears that Barack-mania is showing no signs of dying down anytime soon. So whatâÄôs so great about a man whoâÄôs spent more time living in Indonesia than in his fatherâÄôs native country of Kenya? The answer for many Kenyans is everything. Last December, KenyaâÄôs relatively pristine imagine was marred by political violence as their much-anticipated elections were shrouded in allegations over voting fraud. Images of wild lions and majestic giraffes were replaced with photographs of distraught youth wielding machetes, conjuring up visions of Rwanda circa 1994 for many potential visitors. Since then, the Kenyan government has attempted to overhaul their countryâÄôs image, pushing exotic safari packages and highlighting the successes of their citizens and decedents, including Obama. Kenyan products, places and people have all begun linking themselves to Obama, even though the nominee has only visited the country three times in his life. âÄúSenator Beer,âÄù an East African brew, was nicknamed âÄúObama,âÄù and the song appropriately titled âÄúBarack ObamaâÄù by reggae artist Cocoa Tea became increasingly popular this summer, with street vendors dressing in costumes and singing its bizarre lyrics (It’s not Hillary Clinton, It’s not John McCain, It’s not Chuck Norris, I know it’s not John Wayne! âĦ But it is a new trendsetter âÄî The man who unite(s) America âĦ) Newspapers have even taken up to supporting Obama, regurgitating campaign mantras like âÄúYes we can!âÄù to readers without a second guess. But aside from national favoritism, Obama provides an almost fairytale story of success for many Kenyans. His father, Barack Obama Sr., grew up herding goats in Western Kenya. After receiving a grant to study in the United States, Obama Sr. met Ann Dunham, and conceived Obama. Though things werenâÄôt always peachy âÄî his parents separated when he was still a child âÄî Obama rose from his modest history to become a Senator, and now a presidential candidate. His struggle to attain the American dream has been highlighted throughout his campaign, gaining the attention of many Kenyans along the way In his acceptance speech at last weekâÄôs Democratic National Convention in Denver, Obama spoke about his parentâÄôs âÄúshared a belief that in America, their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to âĦ that through hard work and sacrifice each of us can pursue our individual dreams.âÄù In Kenya, where many promising college students land jobs as hotel managers or in customer service after graduation, the story of Obama seems inspirational and also oddly attainable. To put ObamaâÄôs importance into a more societal context, itâÄôs key to understand the idea of community and family are strongly tied to his support ongoing in Kenya. Traditionally, distant relatives, neighbors and friends are treated as members of the nuclear family. A childâÄôs successes and failures are attributed to the care of the entire community rather than simply their guardians. My Kenyan friend Amos Odero explained that many people feel an intimate familial relationship to Obama even though theyâÄôve never met him. ThatâÄôs because they believe ethnic, societal and cultural similarities make them kin, despite any biological ties. Furthermore, he said, as a community, âÄúit is as if one of their own is on the way to be president of one of the most powerful countries in the world.âÄù Aside from the immense pride associated with rearing a possible world leader, some even hope (myself included) that if elected, Obama will share the financial spoils of the United States with developing countries such as Kenya. Yes the idea may be far-fetched, but it does provide some hope for the almost 19 million Kenyan citizens currently living under the poverty line. Though IâÄôm not looking for an American colonization scheme in East Africa, I wouldnâÄôt mind seeing a few Obama medical clinics and primary schools dotted along the rural landscape. So even though Kenyans may not be able to cast their vote, youâÄôll be sure theyâÄôll be following our politics all the way up to the polling booth in November. As a fellow U.S. born aid worker in Kenya said, âÄúEven before Obama was in the spotlight, my Kenyan friends were always talking about politics in America. We may not know a lot about Kenyan politics, but they sure know a lot about ours!âÄù âÄî Kathryn Nelson welcomes comments at [email protected]