Rob Crilly, Times of London, January 21, 2009
The combined talents of Aretha Franklin, Joe Biden and Yo-Yo Ma failed to silence the drinkers at the Urafiki Green Pub in the heart of Kibera, Africa’s biggest slum.
Thousands gathered in the narrow dirt alleys and dusty clearings of the slum to enjoy the moment, chanting “Yes we can”. Hush fell only when the tiny television set in the corner of the ramshackle bar room filled with the distinctive features of America’s 44th President.
“This man is Jesus,” shouted one man, spilling his Guinness as Barack Obama began his inaugural address. “When will he come to Kenya to save us?” If Barack Obama’s spin doctors have been trying to lower expectations since his election victory, the message clearly has not reached the land of his father.
Millions of people around the country thronged giant TV screens or crammed into bars to watch the inauguration of a man viewed as Kenya’s best hope of a prosperous and happy future.
In some ways his first success was simply to unit a country fractured along tribal lines. Last year the country imploded in a wave of political violence. Last night the inauguration of the grandson of a Kenyan goatherd as US President did more to bring the country together than the efforts of its own corrupt politicians.
Kepha Ngito, who runs youth projects in Kibera, said: “This is something all Kenyans can enjoy. It doesn’t matter what tribe you belong to. This is for all of us.”
Many slum residfents missed the concluding moments of the inauguration when a makeshift cinema–a sheet pinned to a wall with a projector and a borrowed aerial–failed, but no-one much cared.
“Now he is president we will get food and jobs,” said Ben Ochieng, as he danced to the traditional music that replaced the planned show.
All week Kenya had been gearing up for Mr Obama’s moment of glory. Newspapers have published souvenir editions, countless goats have been slaughtered for the party and a popular local brew, Senator beer, has been renamed President for the occasion.
The Kenya National Theatre even revived its hit show Obama The Musical, which wowed sell-out audiences during the US election last year. It uses parallels with the Bible Story and Mr Obama’s own struggles with racism and drugs–documented in his memoir Dreams From My Father–to portray the incoming President as a saviour for downtrodden peoples of the world.
George Orido, the show’s artistic director, said Mr Obama’s story was an inspiration to ordinary Kenyans. “The main message for my show is that anything is possible if you believe and work hard at it,” he said. “That’s important because I come from a part of the world which has been written off by the rest of the planet.”
Kenya is a country in need of a saviour. Last year 600,000 people were left homeless by the violence that followed disputed presidential elections.
This year some 10 million are at risk of hunger, prompting the government to declare a national emergency last week.
While Mr Obama may have been elected by American voters, here he is viewed as a Kenyan president. And Kenyan politicians are supposed to look after their own.
“It is right that when people get power they look after their family, so we know that Obama will build lots of good things for us, like schools and roads and clinics,” said George Opiyo as he left the theatre.
In Kogelo, the tiny village that the Obama family calls home, thousands thronged the grounds of the local school as Kenyans took a day off work to party. Luo dancers from Mr Obama’s tribe draped in monkey skins put on a traditional show, while onlooker waved American flags.
Here the benefits of the Obama presidency are already being felt. The government moved quickly after his November victory to bring modern amenities to the tiny homestead that had been left behind by the 21st century.
“This is an incredible opportunity for us, because a lot of investment will come,” said 20-year-old Faith Achieng. “It’s already thanks to him we have electricity and water.” Not bad for a man trying to play down his tag as the “chosen one”.