Student sees Obama’s impact in Kenya

Celebrating the victory of President-elect Barack Obama in the American presidential election Wednesday, Kenyans in Kisumu take to the streets. After learning the results, President Mwai Kibaki declared Thursday a public holiday, allowing Kenyans time to The Associated Press

Celebrating the victory of President-elect Barack Obama in the American presidential election Wednesday, Kenyans in Kisumu take to the streets. After learning the results, President Mwai Kibaki declared Thursday a public holiday, allowing Kenyans time to The Associated Press

By Dan Brencic

We have all heard throughout our lives how much the rest of the world watches the actions of the United States. With the recent problems in the U.S. economy, the repercussions have been felt around the world. Rising fuel and food prices have had a significant effect on the lives of people in developing countries, leaving many people looking to the U.S. for an answer.

I have been living in Kenya for just more than two months now as part of a study abroad program. I spent the first six weeks in Nairobi, Africa’s fourth largest city, taking classes. In January, the world watched Kenya as the country was torn apart in the post-election violence. From the outside perspective, it is difficult to understand why all of the death and destruction of the post-election violence occurred. After independence, Kenya developed as a country deeply divided along the tribal lines of 42 ethnic groups, each with its own unique history. In its 45 years as an independent country, Kenya’s three presidents have historically displayed nepotism, favoring their own ethnic group and province. Resources have been typically funneled into the president’s home province, consequently neglecting and underdeveloping many other parts of Kenya.

The Luo are the third largest ethnic group in Kenya, residing primarily near Lake Victoria in Nyanza Province. Nyanza Province has “the poorest health indicators in Kenya, in particular, child and infant mortality and HIV and AIDS,” according to the Ministry of Health’s report from the Reproductive Health Summit in 2006. Nyanza Province also has many other public health problems, including cholera outbreaks and tuberculosis. The Luo people have historically been marginalized in politics until recently. In the 2007 election, Raila Odinga, a Luo, ran against sitting president Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu. All of the pre-election polls showed Odinga leading. When it came time for the election, several provinces were delayed in reporting the results, which raised suspicion of vote rigging. Kibaki was declared president under a cloud of suspicion and sworn in hours later. These events outraged many people in Kenya especially the Luo people who foresaw another five years of inadequate health facilities, failing schools and poorly maintained roads as other areas flourished under Kibaki’s favoritism. The post-election violence left thousands killed and countless properties destroyed as the different ethnic groups clashed. The U.S. election brought a renewed sense of hope for the Luo people and many Kenyans.

After six weeks in Nairobi, I moved to Kisumu in western Kenya for an internship. Kisumu has a large Luo population and is the center of Obama country. Barack Obama’s father was Kenyan, a Luo from Kogelo, a small town outside of Kisumu in Nyanza Province. Obama’s paternal grandmother still resides in Kogelo, where Obama visited on his trip to Kenya two years ago. In the weeks leading up to the election, the small rural village was inundated with foreign journalists from around the world trying to get an exclusive interview with Obama’s Kenyan relatives.

I learned quickly just how popular Obama is in this part of Kenya. I’ve seen many matatus (small buses that seat 14 passengers) decorated with images of Obama and American flags. In downtown Kisumu, there are entire shops dedicated to selling everything Obama from buttons, T-shirts, biographical DVDs and even large framed pictures. In the days leading up to the election, I would often be greeted by cheers of, “Obama!” on my walk to work each morning. At my internship, every employee wore an Obama button and each one of our company vehicles had an Obama bumper sticker. The director’s car had an Obama bumper sticker on the back AND front just in case anyone had any doubt which candidate he was supporting.

Most Kenyans I spoke to before the election would ask me where I was from. When they heard that I’m from Chicago in Illinois they would often get very excited and want to talk about nothing besides Obama. People would often claim that Obama is their cousin or distant relative since they’re both Luo.

The amount of political understanding that people in Kenya have varies. Some people are very informed about Obama’s policies and political experience. They recognize the role of the U.S. and see promise for improving the global economy. For others, supporting Obama is more of a fad simply because he’s “Kenyan.”

One of the local newspapers interviewed young students and asked them what they thought would happen if Obama were elected president of the United States. Several of the children replied that they thought Obama would buy all of the schools in Kenya computers while others stated that he would help all of the people living in the slums.

Around Kisumu there have been rumors that the local government wants to expand the Kisumu airport in order to accommodate Air Force One as soon as possible. Other people speculated that within a week after the election, the dollar would be the currency of Nyanza Province. Talking with other people, they insisted that if Obama becomes president it will be much easier for Kenyans to get green cards to the U.S.

Many people all around Kenya gathered around radios or TVs early Wednesday morning as the results came in. Hundreds of people gathered in Kisumu at the local sports grounds to watch the election coverage on a large projection screen. At around 7 a.m. in Kenya, we found out that Obama had been elected as the 44th president of the United States. All around Kenya, spontaneous celebrations began as people paraded in the streets by the hundreds.

An hour after hearing the results, I walked the same mile to work I do every morning but that morning was different. As I walked, some people waved to me, cars honked in celebration, boda-bodas (bicycle taxis) rang their bells while others cheered, “Obama!” and yet others yelled out “Thank You” or “Good Job!” Throughout the day I saw many people wearing shirts with the American flag on it and many others wearing red, white and blue clothes. I encountered many people who told me how proud they were of Obama and the actions of the American people. For many people in Kenya, Obama’s victory has given people a reason to hope for a better future.

Soon after hearing the election results, President Mwai Kibaki made a public announcement declaring Thursday a public holiday to allow all Kenyans an opportunity to celebrate. There are already plans in the coastal town of Mombasa to name a street after Obama. Obama’s victory has given hope to many people around the world for a better future. Never have I understood how much the world watches the U.S. than on that day when Kenya embraced its native son.