Thomas Mukoya and Leon Malherbe, Reuters, January 9, 2008
U.S. Senator Barack Obama’s Kenyan grandmother said her grandson is “full of surprises” and will come back from defeat in New Hampshire’s primary to become the first black U.S. president.
In Obama’s ancestral village of Kogelo in western Kenya, 85-year-old Sara Hussein on Wednesday expressed the general feeling among locals intently focused on the U.S. presidential race amid the violent election turmoil in their own country.
Obama’s uncle, Said Obama, said the family were praying for an election come-back after the Illinois senator lost Tuesday’s Democratic primary in New Hampshire to rival Hillary Clinton despite going into the poll as favourite.
Born in Hawaii to a white American mother and Kenyan father, Obama is revered by many Kenyans the way the Irish idolised U.S. President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s—as one of their own who succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
He last visited Kogelo, which boasts the Senator Obama Primary School, in 2006 and was received like royalty by thousands of cheering well-wishers.
Obama’s Kenyan family hail from the Luo tribe of opposition leader Raila Odinga, who accuses Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki of stealing re-election in a poll that has triggered ethnic bloodshed, especially between the Luo and Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe.
“I hope to see Obama as the first black president of America,” Dan Chemotei, from the picturesque Rift Valley province, which has seen some of the worst violence, told Reuters in central Nairobi where he works as a guard.
“If we get one of our own to lead the world’s most powerful nation then we will get a lot of foreign aid and attention. Obama will definitely address the current political crisis in Kenya because he is ours,” he said.
Charles Odhiambo, who drives a bicycle taxi in Kogelo, said a President Obama would bring tarmac, water and hospitals to Kenya.
“If he becomes president we will get all that. He will buy me a new motorbike to replace my old bicycle,” the 30-year-old father of three said with a smile.
Regardless of which Democrat pulls ahead as the candidates race toward Nevada and South Carolina, the rapid political rise of a Harvard-educated Illinois senator with a Kenyan father is bringing ripples and some tides of excitement in the near and far corners of a weary world.
It’s clear that the buzz around America’s first realistic black candidate has fed the imagination of many non-US observers, who see the controversial superpower as offering something different.
The image of a young, lanky African-American who combines charisma and a sense of nobility vying with a high-powered woman senator for the planet’s most powerful office lends a feeling of history and symbolizes the democracy and diversity that many abroad want to see as America’s significant contribution.
“[Barack Obama is] what the rest of the world dreams America can be,” says Jacques Mistral, a transatlantic specialist and director of economic studies at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. “He looks like a Kennedy type, and that he’s black is very new. In Europe, the idea that a woman can win is accepted. But for a black person to win would represent a radical change—for the US, and the world.”
But in a world where nearly every poll shows America’s image seriously dragging after the Iraq war onset, and scant interest in Republicans, Obama has made a significant splash, especially among the young. In Germany, which still swoons over JFK, he’s been called a “black Kennedy”—though as in much of Europe, German opinion is divided between the “experience” brought by Sen. Hillary Clinton, and the “charisma” of the newcomer who won the Iowa caucus.
In Japan, where US elections are sometimes taken more seriously than the election of the Japanese prime minister, the rise of Obama is as intriguing a subject as the romance between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Italian singer Carla Bruni.
“Obama-san is great,” says Azusa Shiraishi, a sophomore at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka. She compares Obama with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and thinks “he could bring different perspectives of the US to us as well as American people. That would be great.”
Not surprisingly, in Kenya, where Obama’s father started life as a goatherd, the public has followed every twist with a euphoric mixture of pride and envy. Ethnic clashes in the wake of Kenyan presidential elections have forced the US primaries into the background. But many Kenyans believe that Africa would benefit from an Obama presidency, moving the continent up the international agenda as well as promoting a feel-good factor.
“We always feel we are lower-class people,” says George Anyango, who works at a shopping mall. “But if someone of Kenyan origin becomes president there, it will make us feel we are on the same level.”
Obama is the favorite in the Arab world, not so in Israel, and has not been heard of much at all in China. People in Baghdad also seem to not have had the luxury of knowing much about the first serious candidate to oppose the war there. In Cairo, enthusiasm about the possible success of a black candidate with a Muslim name and a father from a third-world country is often tinged with conspiracy theories.
“I think it would be good for the world and America if an outsider won,” says Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas official in the Gaza Strip. “But surely this won’t be allowed—the CIA or someone would assassinate him first.”
On the eve of President Bush’s visit to Israel Tuesday, a banner headline in the daily Ma’ariv read, “Apprehension in Jerusalem about an Obama presidency.” Worry has to do with the uncertainty of Obama’s position on the Middle East—in contrast with Clinton’s pro-Israel position—and vague unease about a candidate with Muslim antecedents as perhaps siding more strongly with Arabs. (Obama is a professed liberal Protestant.)