44th President or Second Coming?

January 21, 2009

While the rest of the world was watching the inauguration of the 44th US president, I couldn’t help feeling Kenya was watching the second coming. Down in Kibera (Africa’s biggest slum) the mood was electric. Most of the people I spoke to seemed to have been drinking since very early and everyone had a wishlist of things they wanted Obama to do for the land of his father.

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.

The night before the inauguration I tootled along to Obama: The Musical to try to get a sense of the mood here. The audience was smaller than when it played to packed houses in November, but the story on stage provided an incredible insight into Africa’s American Dream, and the hopes and expectations that people here have for an Obama presidency. Again the notion of Obama as saviour of Kenya and Africa was at the forefront. Obama’s father uses language straight from The Bible Story to announce the arrival of his son and then Obama Jr battles with his own wilderness and the temptation of drugs. The effect was deliberate, said the show’s artistic director, George Orido.

“Blacks have long been seen as less than human. Obama changes that by going to the White House,” he says, on the steps of the theater after Monday’s show. “For us that makes him like a prophet and to associate him with a religious figure is not a sin.” Indeed, in the language of the Luo – the tribe of Obama’s father and Orido – the word “Ruoth” is used for both leader and for Jesus. Never mind that Barack means “blessed” in Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa.

That’s quite a lot to live up to. But as one of my Kenyan friends pointed out: "No-one here is that bothered if you fail to live up to your promises. All that matters is whether you have the charisma to stay at the top." But I guess the best insight of the night came from my driver. "It didn’t last very long did it," he said. "I even missed the oath." He was puzzled that the most important man in the world didn’t keep the crowd waiting all day and then make them sit through four hours of speeches. "Obama must be more American than African," was his conclusion.