12 July 2009

Kenya: What Has Kenya Ever Given Obama Besides a Name?


Nairobi — MANY KENYANS ARE disappointed that "our son", President Barack Obama, did not choose to come "home" on his first official trip to Africa.

The general feeling is that Obama is "punishing" the Kenya Government for its slow pace of reforms and its unwillingness to deal with corruption.

Although I believe that shunning Kenya is part of the Obama administration's strategy for dealing with poorly governed African states, I am convinced that Obama, unlike his predecessor, George Bush, has deeply personal reasons for avoiding Kenya.

Every trip Obama has made to his ancestral land has been both a revelation and a disappointment. As a young man in search of his roots in the 1980s, he saw a country ravaged by a despotic regime, and a people without faith in a better tomorrow. He saw siblings, cousins and aunts, whose lives showed little promise, and who envied him for not being born in Kenya.

When his wife Michelle joined him on a honeymoon trip to Kenya, she was equally disappointed. In his book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama recounts Michelle's experience of her father-in-law's land:

"Michelle was bursting with excitement about the idea of visiting the continent of her ancestors, and we had a wonderful time, visiting my grandmother up-country, wandering through the streets of Nairobi, camping in the Serengeti, fishing off the island of Lamu.

"But during our travels, Michelle also heard -- as I had heard during my first trip to Africa -- the terrible sense on the part of most Kenyans that their fates were not their own. My cousins told her how difficult it was to find a job or to start their own business without paying bribes. Activists told us about being jailed for expressing their opposition to government policies.

"Even within my own family, Michelle saw how suffocating the demands of family ties and tribal loyalties could be, with distant cousins constantly asking for favours, uncles and aunts showing up unannounced."

When he came back to Kenya as a US senator in 2006, the government pooh-poohed him for being just a "junior senator from America" who had no right to lecture Kenyans on issues such as corruption and the rule of law. Is it any wonder he is avoiding Kenya now?

Barack and Michelle Obama's experience of Kenya as a nation of hopeless beggars, I believe, has also impacted his own views on foreign aid to Africa.

OBAMA HAS BEEN CRITICISED FOR not doing enough for Africa -- at least not as much as his predecessor George Bush, who committed nearly $50 billion to reducing HIV, malaria and tuberculosis.

Even though Obama has committed to doubling aid to Africa, he is more inclined than Bush to see aid as a temporary solution to a problem that needs to be solved institutionally and through better governance.

I am also inclined to believe that Obama's personal experience of the "dependency culture" in Kenya, typified by his own family, has made him wary of the value of foreign aid. The fact is that he never really enjoyed an equal relationship with most of his family members; most viewed him as the foreigner who could help them escape poverty.

As Sunday Nation columnist Sunny Bindra has pointed out in the anthology, Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits, "relationships between givers and takers are always fraught with difficulty".

He explains: "At some stage in our lives, many of us (especially those of us who live in Africa) have had to support disadvantaged friends and relatives. Where that exchange involves reasonable sums provided to overcome temporary difficulty, both sides are happy... It all goes horribly and predictably wrong, however, if the dependency continues indefinitely.

"Once the kind-hearted, socially responsible one has been doling out large sums for many years and the needy, dependant one has been pocketing them, the recriminations begin. Far from being productive or necessary, the donor-dependant relationship most often ends in mutual hatred."

Obama is seeking a departure from the "business as usual" donor-recipient relationship, particularly with regards to Africa, because he knows how this relationship has distorted his own relationship with his ancestral land. Wouldn't it be wonderful if he could visit a Kenya that is strong, thriving and bursting with optimism, rather than one that is on its knees begging for assistance?

If that day ever comes, we will be happy to partner with him as an equal, not as part of an aid-driven system that is designed to perpetuate dependency.

Obama can then proudly lay claim on Kenya, just like we now lay claim on him, because that will be the moment he will stop seeing his ties to Kenya as an unfortunate accident of history.

Ms Warah is an editor with the UN. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.

Copyright © 2009 The Nation. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.