(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, February 16, 2013)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ It was YouTube and it was Barack Obama talking to the neighbours in Kenya. You may have heard that they’re about to vote.
The last time the Kenyans did this, six years ago, 1,000 lay dead on the bloody streets. Another 600,000 were displaced, including here to Uganda where UN shelters near the airport are still up.
To all appearances, current prime minister Raila Odinga will now get the nod for the top post of president, and without the same violence. Certainly a peaceful election would be a relief for East Africa’s 132 million people.
But this is Africa, where appearances can be deceiving. And so U.S. President Obama recently addressed Kenyans online – “to come together, instead of tearing apart” and “to show the world that you are not just a member of a tribe or ethnic group, but citizens of a great and proud nation.”
It’s an interesting gesture for various reasons. One is because, while Kenya is Obama’s ancestral homeland, he hasn’t paid so much attention to folks here. In fact, since taking office in 2008, Obama has spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa – just a brief 2009 stopover in Ghana.
Both Bill Clinton, America’s so-called “first black president,” and George W. Bush, who gave $15 billon in African AIDS relief in his first term alone, were far more Afrocentric. Obama’s social policies on matters like gay marriage would also rile plenty of Africans.
But most – those who live hand-to-mouth without much education or exposure to the outside world – aren’t aware of American presidential policy per se. They may acknowledge there’s been a disconnect from this U.S. president who’s a half-child of Africa, but they don’t let it bother them.
Paul is a gardener I know. He puts it to me this way. “We were very happy along with him that a fellow black would rule America. [But] the help that we hoped for hasn’t been realized.”
In his next breath, he then credits Obama for single-handedly toppling Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and wonders if the superpower president isn’t planning that same shake-up for Uganda.
Educated Africans also give Obama slack for not visiting Africa. For one, he’s had to guard against the deceptions of his opponents – ‘You’re not even American-born. You’re an African and a Muslim.’ Staying clear of Africa is seen as a necessary response.
Getting out of a couple of wars, reviving a tanked economy or even dealing with Washington’s dysfunctions have also kept Obama busy at home.
So a certain kinship and hope-eternal remains. Obama’s online address has heightened this. The only event that might cause a bigger stampede than Kenya’s election is an Obama visit. Some now believe if the March 4 vote unfolds peacefully, that sort of homey drop-in could follow.
It would give Obama’s oft-expressed ideals a certain flesh.
During last month’s inaugural address, I watched with some American friends here in Uganda. The U.S. is still the Mother of Modern Freedom. Its peaceful transfers of power, one after the other over 237 years, are just a dream in many places. This is what we heard.
Yes, much of the world does long for this. I see it, desperate people who crave more than charity, but peace. And peace through justice and human dignity, not the barrel of a gun.
You see it in their eyes and how their skin presses against their facial bones. Then you look with more than just your eyes and you listen to what’s not said as much as what is. This is what happens when you’re here with your feet on the ground.
Because it is the earth and it is all of ours; a connected world that we’re all stuck in. When things shake here, like it or not, they’ll shake in one way or another over there too. Conversely, peace can also be fanned for everyone’s gain.
Is there anyone better to fan at least new hope in Africa than America’s first black president? It may be a long time before another black man has the chance.
Obama in Africa would give substance to the idealism and words. For many, it would also give an invaluable memory to build on.