Half a World Away, Kenya Exults at U.S. Outcome

There was a moment after 9/11 when the world’s attitude toward the United States was one of solidarity. Many of us were deeply grieved that Bush turned his back on the world, and fanned the flames of hatred-based fear of the Other instead. So soon, it seems, we have come upon another such rare moment in U.S. history, and the world again feels solidarity with us, only this time, not in mourning with us, but in celebration of our step in the direction of moral progress. “If America can elect a black man, then why can’t Kenya shun tribalism and elect anyone, regardless of tribe?”

November 6, 2008 | Washington Post Foreign Service

by Stephanie McCrummen

KOGELO, Kenya, Nov. 5 — By afternoon on Wednesday, truckloads of Kenyans from all over the country were making a kind of pilgrimage to a place now known as White House Africa.

It is the rural home of President-elect Barack Obama’s Kenyan grandmother, a modest but sprawling compound with neatly trimmed grass and deep-green mango trees, where crowds of cheering, dancing, singing people spent the day reveling in the victory of the man they simply call “our son.”

“It’s something we never thought we would achieve,” said John Omondi, 20, a student who lives in this village of farmers where Obama’s father grew up. “I’m so happy that America has set an example to the whole world, that any one of us can make it.”

The news of Obama’s triumph reached Kenya as the sun rose Wednesday, and within minutes, a wave of euphoria — and some serious reflection — washed across this East African nation, where weeks of violence after a presidential election in late 2007 left many people deeply pessimistic about democracy.

On Wednesday, though, Kenyans were speaking of a restored confidence and hope in their country. Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is from the same area and tribe as Obama’s father and who says he lost the election because of vote rigging, declared Thursday a national holiday, saying Obama’s victory was also one for Kenya.

Revelers paraded through the streets waving American flags, Obama posters and branches of palms and other trees, and some neighborhoods and villages were renamed — Florida, Ohio, North Carolina.

People spoke jokingly of Kenya becoming a 51st U.S. state.

“This election shows that the kinds of changes we believe in are possible,” said Bonaventure Mboya, a textbook salesman named for a much-loved Kenyan politician assassinated in 1969. “We feel as if we are Americans.”

Mboya was among a few hundred people from this village who gathered in a field under tents through the cool Tuesday night. They had hoped for months, prayed for hours and now were watching election returns projected on a big white sheet. Some tallied electoral votes on scraps of paper. Others struggled to stay awake, not realizing the significance of early returns from some place called Pennsylvania.

When the announcement came, though, the reaction was quick.

“Hallelujah!” a preacher yelled into a microphone just after CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer said Obama had won. “It’s celebration time! Obama has put Kenya on the world map and the whole of Africa on the world map!”

People began hugging and dancing, hoisting their white plastic chairs.

Others just stood there, as John Odihiambo did, taking it all in, tears in his eyes.

“It’s like a miracle,” he said, confessing to a cynicism that seemed to vanish with Obama’s victory. “There was that doubt that with black-white relations in America, that a black man could not be elected. But he was,” said Odihiambo, a government worker who, like many here, drew a parallel between overcoming racism in the United States and rising above tribalism, the bane of Kenyan society. “If America can elect a black man, then why can’t Kenya shun tribalism and elect anyone, regardless of tribe?”

Down the road, people in the town of Luanda gathered around a little TV at Hawker’s Base, a hardware store, and listened to Obama’s victory speech — in which he talked about the ability to change and perfect the American union.

“It’s wonderful,” said Mboya, the Kogelo salesman, who heard the news on the BBC and sent his wife a one-line text message: “We have done it.”

“He’s suggesting that the world has finally changed,” Mboya said.

As Obama began to invoke the signature line of his campaign — “Yes, we can” — before a sea of supporters in Chicago, a Kenyan on the other side of the world finished the speech for him.

“Twa wenza,” Mboya said, offering the phrase in Swahili.

Kenyans have been riveted by the U.S. election since Obama announced his candidacy last year. There has been a run on framed photos of Obama, as well as buttons and bumper stickers supporting his cause; artists have recorded reggae songs about Obama that blared from car radios and kiosks Wednesday. Babies have been named Barack Obama. A production called “Obama, The Musical” opened in Nairobi.

In Kisumu, the provincial capital about an hour from here that was hit hard by post-election riots in January, Kenyans held a mock vote Tuesday, with some people walking and biking for more than two hours to cast fake ballots for Obama.

But underneath the exuberant pride at seeing an American with Kenyan roots elected president, there was something else. Many here said Obama’s victory could inspire real change in Kenyan or even African politics, where cliques of insiders have dominated elections since independence by appealing to tribal voting blocs.

“Obama does not belong to the lineage of a political class, and he had no particular wealth to begin with except for his own convictions,” said Moses Mubula, 35, a farmer who was watching the returns on the white-sheet screen here as the sky began to glow light blue. “So the best part . . . is that it symbolizes the crumbling of racial barriers, age barriers, class barriers, and maybe we here in Kenya can break that jinx, too.”

Sitting next to Mubula, Robinson Stanley, 22, seemed to latch on to that idea, saying that Obama’s victory might inspire a younger generation of Kenyans to enter politics and pursue an office without appealing to tribalism.

“It is time for a younger generation,” said Stanley, who lives day-to-day selling vegetables in Kogelo, quotes Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, and has tentative political ambitions. “This is an inspiration to all young people. We can see that America is a country of many tribes — you have Germans, British, French, Africans. . . . I see that America can only be great if they all come together.”

Obama’s grandmother, Sarah Hussein Obama, watched his victory from inside her home, which has been transformed in recent months as its significance became clear.

A fence was installed around the compound, and armed guards were posted out front to handle intruders and journalists who began camping out there as Election Day approached. For that matter, Kogelo has also been transformed, with its dirt roads widened and power lines installed in an area where people tend to rely on generators for electricity.

By midmorning, Sarah Obama was out in the sunshine dancing with other villagers and slaughtering bulls, goats and chickens for a celebration that carried on until sunset. At times, the festivities veered to the extreme: “Obama is king of the world!” one young man yelled.

About 6 p.m., a truck with an Obama poster plastered to the windshield brought in a load of revelers from Busia, a town near the border with Uganda. The passengers hopped out and began dancing around an American flag.

“We are very much grateful” for Obama’s win, said Samuel Walala, 40. “It’s as if our son became president. . . . Something has happened in America.”

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