The East African (Nairobi)

Kenya: Barack Obama And the Graveyard of Hope

opinion

Nairobi — I am finding it very difficult to join in the jubilation about Senator Barack Obama. Not that I want to deny the man his victory, but my impulse to celebrate keeps deflating on the idea that the best thing that happened to little Barack was not growing up in Kenya.

I have been imagining alternative trajectories for him if he had come to know the world through the eyes of a Kenyan citizen, if his mother and grandparents had not rescued him from our chaos and contradictions and brought him up somewhere his intellect and talent could grow.

If he had grown up here, and had he somehow managed to retain most elements of his current self, he would have been another outstanding, intelligent and competent Luo man in our midst: and he would have been killed.

Yes, we would have assassinated a Barack Obama if he had remained ours, with us, one of us here in this schizophrenic cauldron we call home. This is not going to stretch the imagination of any Kenyan - after all, when we had that incredibly good-looking and charismatic home-grown hero, Tom Mboya, we shot him to death.

And when that austerely intellectual and elegant leader, Robert Ouko, threatened to look overly intelligent to the world, we killed him too. We killed Pio Gama Pinto and we killed JM Kariuki. There is no reason to suppose that Barack Obama, whose integrity of purpose and stringent sense of ethics even his enemies concede, would have survived his Kenyan roots.

HE IS MUCH TOO INTELLIGENT, TOO charged with the promise of history, too bold in his claim to a shining destiny, too full of the audacity of hope, for us to have let him survive. Kenya would have killed Barack Obama, or at least his dream, as we inevitably destroy, in one way or another, the best and the boldest of us. Goldenberg whistle blower David Munyakei's challenge to his country to be bigger than our greed was met with a whimper, and then with rapid abandonment. We did not deserve him, either.

As for John Githongo, he should have known better than to take the idea of public ethics seriously - this is Kenya, after all. Let him enlighten people at Oxford instead; such considerations are too virtuous for us, too sensible, too conducive to a promising future. We do not even remark on the haunting wastage of all this shining accomplishment - Micere Mugo sings her lyrical poetry for Americans, and we do not even know enough to mourn the loss.

AND YET WE ARE ALL ENCHANTED with the power of the idea of Barack Obama, the hope of him, the beauty of his life's trajectory, the universe of possibilities and probabilities that it conjures for the least of the rest of us. If someone's cousin's friend's neighbour makes it to the United States... then we all have a chance. We have a strange predilection for schizophrenic loves and loyalties; we let geography dictate our alliances and imaginary lines decide our friends. It is as if our social contract states that here, at home, we are obliged to behave like fighting rats to each other but when abroad, when released from the shackles of kin and clan and conclave, we can fly and soar and master the sky.

When Wangari Maathai is abroad, we feel that her Nobel Prize is partly represented in each of our Kenyan living rooms; when she comes home, she is just another Kikuyu politico. We preen about our athletes winning yet another international competition to anybody who will give us half a chance, but when they are at home we turn them into more fodder for militias.

Caine Prize winners are Kenyan by automatic assent, but Binyavanga Wainaina is a Kikuyu writer when at home and Yvonne Owuor is indelibly a Luo - we shrink them to fit the midget-sized visions we have of ourselves.

IT IS CLEAR TO ALL OF US, AND THE evidence continues to accrue, that we have, collectively, a certain global competence, as Kenyans, that we produce individuals of substance and historical purpose.

Being Kenyan, however, we prefer to drown in the pettiness of our parochial quarrels when at home, and if one of us threatens to be too hopeful, too ambitious, too intelligent, too creative or too inspirational to fit into our trivial little categories of hatred and suspicion, we kill them, or exile them from our societies, or we just cause them to run away inside, hiding from us and from themselves the grandeur of their souls, the splendid landscapes of their imagined tomorrows.

Nothing but the worst for us, at home. We recognise each other by our most rancid rhetoric. We insist upon it, we cultivate it, we elevate it to an art form: Kenyan, and quarrelsome.

Kenyan, and clannish. Kenyan, and counter-productive. Kenyan, and self-destructive. Kenyan, and consistently heart-breaking. Genius everywhere, and not a thought to be had. Promise and potential everywhere, and not an opportunity to be had. Money everywhere, and not an honest penny to be earned. Helicopters aplenty, but no help for the needy. A land awash in Cabinet ministers and poverty.

I HAVE BEEN WATCHING KENYANS getting high on Obamamania, and I am wondering what we are so happy about? It is perhaps that we are beginning to acknowledge what we should always have known - given a half a chance, an ever so slightly conducive context, Kenyans are more likely to over-achieve than not. At the faintest provocation, Kenyans will leap past expectations without breaking their stride or breaking a sweat, especially if they happen to have escaped the imprisoning edifice we call home and found foreign contexts to flourish in, no matter how alien.

I went to a town in the Canadian Arctic once, in the far north, where in summer the sun shines even at midnight and in the winter the world is an endless landscape of ice and snow. Here, far, far away from home, where nothing was familiar except the gentleness of elderly Inuit women and the comforting weirdness of the white residents, I was told that the local dentist had, for many years, been a Kenyan. Everybody said he had been an excellent dentist, out there in the desert of the cold. I was unsurprised.

We are an adventurous people, we Kenyans, and we take to the world outside our home as if born to a conquistador culture - we are brave and brash and bold, out there. We buy and sell things, and make money at it, out there. We go to school and excel and cover ourselves with accreditations, out there. We win things, out there. We get prizes, out there. We are at our best, out there.

HOWEVER, AT HOME, FOR SOME REAson we refuse to either acknowledge or examine - we have chosen simply to set aside this capacity. Here, at home, nothing but the very lowest common denominator will do; nothing but the basest and most brutal aspects of our selves are to be presented to each other; nothing but the most cynical manipulation is the basis of our political space. We prefer to be ruled by individuals whose mediocrity is matched only by their mendacity, here at home.

We prefer to abdicate our adult responsibilities and capacity for reason to "leaders" whose lack of virtue is as legendary as our attractively exotic pastoralists. We do not only waste talent, here at home - we go out of our way to suppress and repress it. We do not only deny dreams, here in Kenya - we devour them, and ask each other, "Who do you think you are?" As if the success of another is an affront.

In Kenya, grand vision and soaring imagination is illegitimate; here, they just call you naive. Out there, you stand a chance of becoming a hero; at home, you will have nothing but the taste of ashes in your mouth. Mothers, take your children abroad.

Barack Obama has written two books, in which he discusses ideas. Ideas. This is a man with vision and conviction, and enough good ideas that even those who do not like the pigmentally-advantaged are listening, and changing their minds.

Even those who think that his name sounds suspiciously like a terrorist's are reading his books and listening to his speeches, and changing their minds. This is a man with interesting and inspiring things to say - which disqualifies him from any Kenyan-ness we would have liked to claim.

Americans like the image of them that Barack Obama has painted in words; which Kenyan leader would dare to build dreams bigger than his roots? Which Kenyan leader would ever be so foolish as to attempt inspiration instead of instigation?

BARACK OBAMA HAS SEDUCED THE world by the power of his persuasiveness, and while Kenyans raise another glass to the accomplishments of "one of our own," it seems clear to me that we gave up our rights to him when we gave up our hopes for ourselves. When we settled for incompetence, and corruption, and callousness, we defined ourselves out of his universe, and out of his dreams.

We rejected Barack Obama-ness when we allowed those pangas to slash our dreams, when we watched our hopes spiral away in smoke. We allowed the ones who had done this to become the only mirrors of ourselves, and then squelched our disgraced selves back to the mire of our despondency.

Barack Obama cannot be a Kenyan, and Kenyans cannot grasp Barack Obama's dream. We have already despaired of it, and of ourselves. His dream would have died with ours, here at home, here in the graveyard of hope.

But oh, how we yearn to see ourselves reflected in his eyes...

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