Washington, DC — African immigrants and the children of African immigrants celebrated the new presidency of Barack Obama for the positive change they believe it will bring to the United States and their home countries.
African Diaspora for Change, a group originally formed to campaign for Obama but now transformed into a nonpartisan organization, held an unofficial inaugural ball January 18. The ball, held at Washington's new Harman Center for the Arts, combined African-style entertainment, speeches and fundraising for education projects at home and abroad.
The event's theme, "I Am the Change," borrowed a phrase from the rhetoric of Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and American mother who was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States two days later.
Many of African Diaspora for Change's members -- including Eritreans, Ethiopians, Ivoirians, Somalis, Kenyans and Sudanese -- worked to accomplish this change, knocking on more than 13,000 doors and hosting get-out-the-vote parties on behalf of Obama.
The inaugural ball, which emphasized education, served as a fundraising event for the Batonga Foundation, an organization that supports secondary school and higher education for African girls, and First Book, which distributes new books to children in low-income communities throughout the United States and Canada.
Grammy Award-winning Beninese singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo served both as entertainer and motivator -- belting out songs before the audience of 500 and speaking in her role as Batonga's founder.
Kidjo, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, explained that batonga is a word she invented when she was taunted while attending school at a time when education for girls was not acceptable. She defined it to mean "Get off my back. I will do what I want, I will be who I want.
"The only thing that can lead Africa toward democracy, economic sustainability, is education," particularly of girls, still held back by gender discrimination, Kidjo said. Education can keep girls out of early marriage and early motherhood that limit their options, she added.
"Barack Obama has proven to the world that you can have dreams and hopes and achieve them if you are educated and you have the determination ... and that it has nothing to do with your skin color," she said.
Octavia Jackson, senior vice president of First Book, announced plans to send 10,000 books to Batonga girls in 2009 as the program expands overseas.
Jackson said programs like First Book are vital because 80 percent of U.S. preschools and after-care programs serving disadvantaged children "have not a single book for the children they serve," she said. "We'd like to bring the spirit of this inauguration to a global level because I know that together we can create the change that is necessary" both in the United States and Africa.
Baroness Valerie Amos, a native of Guyana who rose to be leader of the British House of Lords, termed Obama's election "truly transformational in a remarkable sense."
"Just in case you thought that you in the United States were the only ones who were excited by what's happening here," she told the audience, the occasion was "historic for the whole world."
"What we hope to see is a resurgent United States, a truly positive global voice, playing a positive role around the world," and Obama is "not just your president, he's our president," she declared.
Witney Schneidman, a deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Clinton administration who advised the Obama campaign on African issues, lauded what he described as the campaign's unprecedented effort to involve the African diaspora community.
"You've never really been part of the political dialogue for a presidential candidate, and we were going to change that," he said. "We wanted the Somali community in Minnesota to go out and mobilize, we wanted Ethiopians in Virginia to go out and deliver the vote, we reached out to Nigerians, Congolese, Senegalese, South Africans all across the country, and they responded, and it was extraordinary."
"When it comes time [for the Obama administration] to implement policy, the African diaspora community is going to have a very important role. ... This administration is going to need your help to achieve whatever we're going to be able to achieve in Africa," Schneidman said.
Representative Donald Payne, a Democrat from New Jersey and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health and a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, served as honorary chairman of the event.
Recounting the long history of the civil rights movement, he stressed that more remains to be done. "If there is a youngster not getting a decent education in this country or a policeman who is brutalizing a citizen or a person who is losing their home or looking for a job, the job is not done. You must continue to push forward," he declared.
Amina Salum Ali, the African Union's envoy to the United States, said Obama's election signaled "a new dawn in the political landscape of the United States." Ali encapsulated the spirit of the evening when she closed her talk by leading rousing cheers of "Oyay, America," "Oyay, Africa," and then -- loudest of all -- "Oyay Obama!"