January 21, 2009 1 Comment
Bulls and goats have been slaughtered for the feast. Beer has been stockpiled. Movie screens and projectors were erected.
Across Kenya, neighbors engulfed in political violence only a year ago came together Tuesday to celebrate the U.S. presidential inauguration of Kenya’s favorite son, Barack Obama. Among the revelers will be Dr. Joseph Osoo, who was shopping at a Nairobi market for goat meat for his inauguration party. Osoo, who runs a clinic in one of Kenya’s biggest slums, recalled that at this time last year, he was stitching up machete wounds inflicted by rival party members in rioting that followed Kenya’s disputed election.
“Our election in Kenya really had problems with ethnicity,” he said. “America has shown that this doesn’t have to be that big problem. … Democracy can work.”
The celebrations have helped bring together Kenyans from different ethnic groups who were drawn into the country’s political violence last year. The struggling country of 38 million is proud to boast the birthplace of Obama’s father and it is hard to exaggerate the enthusiasm Kenyans feel for America’s new president.
The election of a black American president stands as a powerful symbol of unity on this continent, where many countries are still riven between competing ethnic groups and the older generations still remember the injustices of colonialism.
Teachers mention Obama as a role model to their students, advertisers plaster his face across everything from phones to beer and foreigners who sing songs about him at the ubiquitous police roadblocks can be let off without paying a bribe. For many, the inauguration was a chance to make a little extra cash. One in five Kenyans struggle to get by on less than a dollar a day and many hope to cash in on the country’s Obama connection.
There are plans for a museum in his family’s home village and tour companies are already hawking Obama-themed holidays. Denis Mwangi, a 21-year-old business student, said he had sold 50 Obama T-shirts on Monday, more than he usually sells in a weekend.
“Obama is a great inspiration for all of us,” he said. “Obama should inspire people to be better and stop judging people according to their ethnicity.”
Nairobi’s famous Carnivore restaurant, where tourists dine on alligator and giraffe, said it had ordered an extra 240 crates of beer for partygoers watching the inauguration. Bulls and goats were slaughtered in Kogelo village in western Kenya, where many of Obama’s Kenyan family live. Around 3,000 people congregated at a local primary school to celebrate. Women dressed in colorful printed cloths performed traditional dances to the rhythms of cowhide drums.
In the nearest city, Kisumu, a local Obama look-a-like drove through the town in a honking convoy of cars, motorbikes and bicycles before he arrived at a local sports stadium, where he planned to deliver one of Obama’s speeches. But the celebrations have not been without controversy. Kenyan papers reported a team of ministers has flown to America to watch the ceremonies. However, the ministers had no invitation to the ceremonies, and would be watching the festivities from their hotel room televisions.
Anti-corruption campaigner Mwalimu Mati said Kenyans should not just be celebrating, but looking carefully at their own leaders.
“In Kenya, the biggest problem is a failure of leadership. People are getting poorer by the day,” he said. “Obama is an icon of hope, but he should also be a standard.”