Loving Obama

A call to writers “from Africa” reads:

Following The Democratic party’s defeats in the American mid-term elections and Obama’s dipping popularity, how do you now view President Obama? Has your view changed since 2008?

Do you think he has achieved what he set out to achieve? Should he go? Have the American public given him a fair chance? Will Obama always be a hero in Africa no matter what he achieves?

It is a strange call because of the assumptions it makes about representation and representativeness and ethnicity and race and nationality and affect. And about how it understands “feelings” toward and about Obama.

To get the obvious out of the way: to ask any single African how “Africans” feel.

I had a sentence and then it irritated me. There is no such thing as “African feeling.” There is no collective African heart or mind. No organic or imagined assemblage that “feels” for us or as us. Senghor was wrong. And even he would resist the idea of a single African heart.

Now that is out of the way.

While how “we” feel cannot be disconnected from Obama’s achievements in the U.S.—he was elected there, after all—it also cannot be reduced to his labor in the U.S., and most especially not to how “democrats” or “republicans” feel about him. His “popularity” in “Africa” is based on many things, many of which are independent of domestic policy and U.S. polls. Many of us are interested in his foreign policy and from the start have questioned his allegiance to extending Bush’s policies. Others are interested in his policy toward Kenya and Africa in general—and have yet to recover from his insulting Kenya by not visiting during his “first” trip to Africa as president.

Those who had hoped he would “do something” for Kogelo are surely ambivalent. His presence in the White House has “done something” for the area—it has probably received more domestic and international tourists in the past few years than at any other time during its history. Yet, Obama has been “absent” from Kogelo. His writing depicts it as a “living museum” or a “dream,” a place he visits when in Kenya—he did as a student and again as a senator—but not as a place that has its own desires or dreams and to which he is beholden. It is the place he “leaves behind” to enter into U.S. modernity. It is the place that “must be left behind.”

But even these brief mappings do not come close to capturing any popular sentiment—Kenyans understand Obama in multiple complex ways. For some, he is a former classmate from Harvard. For others, he is the upstart senator who insulted Kenyan academics when he spoke at the University of Nairobi. For others, he remains a symbol of possibility—abstracted from any of his actions. Still, others consider him a cash cow and are still looking for ways to enter his paddock. And for others he is Luo—and we wonder whether or not he is circumcised.

Part of the “diaspora,” he is a figure who arouses pride for his achievements and disappointment for being a too-familiar type. The one who succeeds and “forgets” his “origins” except when it is convenient to remember them.

Perhaps heroes are always disappointments. Obama might be our Lwanda Magere—though some would object to my inappropriate use of a non-Luo figure to describe him. And, here, it’s worth noting that the “African hero” is a complex figure: never simply loved, adored, or praised. To ask, then, whether Obama will “always be a hero” is to ask something very difficult.

Has he “earned” a name for himself in African history? Of course.

But so did the heroes-turned-monsters of the independence era.

At most, all one can say, and I really just echo my friend WM here, is that the meanings attached to Obama and the affects that circulate around him resist precise mapping: bound to his person and achievements, they are also independent of both. Obama is both real and imagined, and “our” real feelings toward him are based on what “we” know and what “we” imagine.

3 thoughts on “Loving Obama

  1. As long as we are not an echo chamber. Perhaps we are an ancient cave–which could be a chamber, but our African-ness and the no-doubt ancient paintings on the wall. Okay, the metaphor became ridiculous.

Comments are closed.