Posted on December 31, 2008

Obama-Inspired Hope Goes Only So Far in Kenya

Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2008

He’s from the same family that produced President-elect Barack Obama. He shares many of the same hopes and dreams. He’s even got the same name.

This Barack Obama, 26, a cousin who was named after the president-elect’s Kenyan father, was elated when someone with African roots rose to the world’s most powerful job.

“I felt I could do anything,” said the lanky student, whose buddies now call him “the President” after his famous U.S. relative. “I felt anything is possible.”

There is no question the U.S. president-elect’s victory has encouraged countless Africans to reach for new heights. But as the euphoria over his election begins to fade here, young Africans are beginning to see his inspirational story as bittersweet.

As the American Obama’s success is institutionalized in pictures hanging in schools and buses and in speeches in parliament promoting change, many are coming to see his against-the-odds accomplishment as something that was really only possible in the United States.

In Africa, money, ethnicity and family connections still count more toward success than does hard work. Bribes usually trump talent; corruption tops integrity. Young Africans hoping to follow in Obama’s footsteps—even those with the same name—may face disappointment and disillusionment.

“The hope might be false,” said youth activist Joshua Nyamori. “Today Obama’s story is not possible in Kenya. If Barack ran in Kenya, he would have failed.”


Yet all around him is Obama-inspired hype. The mythology surrounding the presidential campaign is already as deeply rooted as the mango trees around Lake Victoria.

From the campus of Sen. Barack Obama Secondary School to Obama’s ancestral homestead, teachers, parents and elders wag their fingers at the young, repeating the mantra: See what can happen if you work hard?

At Obama Secondary School, in rural western Kenya, officials say students were so electrified by the U.S. election that teachers are expecting to see an improvement in year-end test scores.


{snip} On average, only two graduates a year from the school’s senior class of about 40 students make it to university.

Nationwide, the odds aren’t much better. Despite free basic education, fewer than half of Kenyan children make it to high school. Fewer than 5% go to college.


Ogweno is already modeling much of his life on the president-elect. A straight-A student, he is prime minister in Kenya’s mock Children’s Parliament. He’s appeared on television defending campus protests and writes a newspaper column for teens.

Though he too is a distant cousin of the president-elect, his family isn’t rich or well connected. He’s a member of the Luo ethnic group, which has long been at odds with the politically dominant Kikuyus. Obama’s father ran into the same ethnic roadblock when he returned to Kenya from the U.S. and entered politics.

Inspired by Obama, Ogweno took a year off after high school last year to work as a youth organizer, setting up nonprofit money-raising ventures to help students earn cash for school fees.


But asked to name someone who has achieved the same success and overcome the same obstacles here that Obama did in the U.S., Ogweno is stumped. He could think only of a Kenyan minister who was assassinated.

“That’s a tricky question,” he said after a long pause. Even in his own family, unemployment is rampant and success stories are rare.

“My uncle has a master’s degree in engineering and now he’s sweeping floors,” he said.


The story of the other Barack Obama, the young electrical engineering student, shows how the best-laid plans can come up against the harsh realities of Africa.

He entered the world with high expectations, named for the president-elect’s successful father, an economist who died in a car crash the day after the young man was born.

He dreamed of becoming a doctor and thrived academically. But his father died of malaria when he was a young boy. Then in high school, he lost his mother to cancer.

An uncle made sure the young man finished his studies, and he applied for medical school. But a Nairobi-based college twice rejected him.

The family blames tribalism and nepotism—they’re from the wrong tribe and refused to pay a bribe. He ended up in a less prestigious polytechnic school.


As the optimism he felt after the U.S. election begins to fade, he’s looking at his situation a bit more practically and, perhaps, cynically. He said he plans to ask relatives close to the president-elect if they’ll help him get a visa to study in the U.S.