Cathecting on Obama

During Barack Obama’s campaign, in June 2008, Dr. Wambui Mwangi published a provocative article in the East African. She opened with the confession that it was “difficult to join in the jubilation about Senator Barack Obama,” explaining, “my impulse to celebrate keeps deflating on the idea that the best thing that happened to little Barack was not growing up in Kenya.” Had Obama grown up in Kenya, she argued, “He would have been killed.” Mwangi echoed Ken Saro-Wiwa’s scathing indictment of Africa in his dystopic short story “African Kills Her Sun,” a story in which corrupt post-independent regimes destroy their so-called “best and brightest.”

Although Mwangi’s sentiments appeared to be hyperbolic, her declaration about Obama being killed a rhetorical effect or broader trope about the postcolonial condition, her sentiments were confirmed in two separate incidents in early 2009. On January 24, 2009, 4 days after Obama took office, newly minted Dr. James Muiruri, a recent law school Ph.D. from the University of Sheffield, was murdered by an off-duty policeman following a bar squabble. Muiruri had kept an online blog in which he detailed his struggles in high school, eventual successes in law school—he had a full scholarship to Sheffield—and his dreams for Kenya. While he could have built a successful career in the UK, he chose to return home, to work in Kenya for Kenya. On March 5, 2009, two Kenyan activists, George Paul Olulu and Oscar Kamau Kingara, were assassinated. Both men had given evidence to a special UN investigator about extrajudicial murders by policemen. Although no formal charges have been filed, it is widely believed that the murders were meant to send a strong message to human rights activists, and as of this writing some Kenyan activists have gone into hiding.

Obama’s successes have helped to bring into relief the limits and dangers of living in Kenya. When president Mwai Kibaki took over in 2002, the era of political repression seemed to be over. The many Kenyans who had fled abroad to escape persecution under president Moi exhaled, and some made plans to move back to Kenya. The impressive economic growth during Kibaki’s first term made Kenya an attractive economic prospect: Kenyans moved back to start businesses and even those who didn’t move back invested their money in Kenya. The Kenyan government reached out to Kenyans abroad and tried to capitalize on Kenya-bound remittances. For the moment, I will defer the discussion about the actual amounts sent and for what purposes, and note, only, that the government tried to court Kenyan investors from abroad.

This is not to say, however, that the picture was all rosy. Members of the Ninth parliament awarded themselves lavish raises, as detailed by the Mars Group; the contentious Sexual Offenses Act, though achieving some victories for women, failed to address marital sexual violence and was hampered by a largely patriarchal parliament insensitive and indifferent to questions of sexual harassment; a Marriage Bill was introduced into parliament that sought to foreclose gay marriage, no doubt a reaction to global activism around gay marriage; and, perhaps most damning, even though the Ninth parliament, led by president Kibaki and guided by attorney general Amos Wako, had promised to root out corruption, the wheels of justice seemed stuck in the mud of cronyism and patronage, unable to turn, and Kenyans became increasingly frustrated by a broken justice system.

Through the latter half of 2007, an election year in Kenya, ethnic and regional differences were fabricated and deployed in a contentious race, embodied, chiefly, in the rivals for president: Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. The causes and effects of this violence have been eloquently discussed in a range of venues, and I do not intend to rehearse the various debates here. My goal here is to think about how the period from 2002-2008, especially the post-election violence of early 2008, helped to frame Obama’s election campaign for Kenyans and also helped Kenyans to re-frame their own relationships to politics.

Let me return to Mwangi’s statement that “an Obama” would have been impossible in Kenya, a statement that speaks to Kenya’s history of assassinating aspiring political leaders and government critics, and also speaks to the conjoined politics of ethnicity, ageism, and political patronage that continue to dictate Kenya’s politics. Certainly, we have had young men run for high office. During the 2002 elections, for instance, Uhuru Kenyatta, then in his early 40s, ran for office against Mwai Kibaki. Son of Kenya’s first president, educated at the elite Amherst College, and anointed by the outgoing president, Daniel Arap Moi, Uhuru aroused ambivalence in many Kenyans. Uhuru, along with Moi’s sons, who have also run for and held political office, represents the bond between dynastic tendencies in Kenya and political patronage. Uhuru belongs to the Nairobi that “is so small” where “everyone knows everyone,” a class coded language of inclusion and exclusion, a Nairobi that young independent politicians have found difficult to navigate.

The 2008 US elections offered Kenyans a “second chance,” the ability to participate in a less violent process. The faith in Obama—what some call Obamamania—was palpable in the period leading up to the election. It was as though his win would help to erase or compensate, in some undefined way, for our own disappointing election process. Philo Ikonya, president of PEN Kenya and a human rights activist, had written and printed a children’s book on Obama’s win, which she brandished about on the day following the election; Obama memorabilia was everywhere in Nairobi following November 4: on articles of clothing, mugs, plates. If it could be printed on, it bore his image.

While some of the excitement was justified, we have yet to really examine how Obama’s win stood in for a story about ourselves that we were not yet ready to hear—and are, perhaps, still not ready. By immersing ourselves in him, and claiming him for ourselves, we could extend our political antennae, attach ourselves to a process and result that we had not been able to effect in our own country. For the moment, I bracket the ethnic dimension to this: as a “Luo” Obama had managed to achieve what his “cousin” Raila had not, and to surpass it.

A few more brief words.

The Kenyan desire for Obama was closely aligned to another Kenyan dream: “stato” was a place that offered multiple opportunities. It was a dream that had been fed by those who left home and never returned—but assured us they were “doing well,” and not knowing better, we converted their $7/hr salaries into Kenyan money and believed them rich. It was also a dream fueled by the so-called “winter bunnies” and “summer bunnies,” those Kenyans who came home on holiday, with “money to burn” and hyperbolic stories of their successes. I want to suggest, here, that while Obama may have been unique in some respects, he was appropriated into an already-existing framework about “stato,” a place of opportunities, where the American dream was not restricted to citizens or legal workers, but was available to those who dared to get on a plane and travel.

There are, of course, other micro-narratives, capillaries that feed into the Obama story: stories about campus instructors who regularly belittle their students; stories about U.S.-trained Kenyan students who discover, on landing in U.S. classrooms that they are not “worms,” and that they have valuable ideas and opinions; stories about what living abroad enables—a friend tells me she could never be in Kenya what she is now.

For now, I remain stuck on why Kenyans so cathected onto Obama.
This is rambling and all over. Drafts are good to think with. I think I’ll develop the section on cathecting.


One thought on “Cathecting on Obama

  1. Just an observation.

    Change doesn’t come lightly. It’s bloody and it costs lives. The old guard will not give up power voluntarily unless the younger generation take it from them.

    We are so engrossed in our day to day dramas and struggles that its bred an “everyone for him/herself mentality”.

    More worrying than the challenge of changing guard, its that its more difficult to identify the prospects that can lead the country in a new direction.

    The talent and the leadership qualities are there – but few have the balls to step up to the plate.

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