14 June 2012

Kenya: Has Kenya's Golden Boy Still Got Game?

Photo: Joseph Swafford Jr./Africom
U.S. forces training in Djibouti.

Nairobi — A Pew Research Center report released Wednesday says global approval of Barack Obama has "slipped".

Although the survey fails to detail much of what Africa thinks of the US leader, our local correspondent reports that Kenyans' frenzied support for what - or rather, who - they once called their "most significant export" is fizzling.

America goes to the polls this autumn and President Obama is seeking a fresh mandate. Kenya - the land of his father, Barack Obama, Sr., who served as a government economist here - is preparing for elections as well. So, how do today's voting-minded Kenyans feel about their world-famous son?

"If Obama was to run against Raila for the presidency in Kenya, Raila would win!" says a youthful Paul Odhiambo between peals of laughter. The resident of Nyanza, where Obama Sr. was born, is confident the popularity of Kenya's current leader outweighs that of the US's.

He adds: "We are, however, proud that a name from our region rules the world."

A refreshing glass of Obama?

In 2008, Obama became US President but, in Kenya, he became immortalized. Businesses, shops, fishing boats, pets and, not least, babies were named after him. Kenya's ubiquitous matatu vehicles rode around with his portrait emblazoned on their bodies.

It's also hard to forget the visit to Kenya in 2006, when he was still senator of the US state of Illinois. His father's hometown - the previously obscure village of Kogelo - sprung to life. The Senator Obama Kogelo Secondary School was christened. Even named in his honour was Senator Keg beer, which drinkers cheekily referred to as 'Obama'.

Yet Obama has not visited Kenya during his presidential office. Hopes have dwindled that his presence in the White House could renew focus on Africa as a recipient for increased foreign aid and military support.

"Not African"?

Lately, it's the open endorsement of gay unions that seems to be killing his popularity here.

"I was a great supporter of Obama, but after his recent support on gay marriage, he lost me as a fan," says an elderly Nairobi resident named Ghalib Swaleh. "A leader is supposed to give direction, he gave the wrong one on that front. He has African roots and that decision is not African."

Kenyan clergymen have also faulted his decision on gay marriages. "Such plans will not succeed, they will not," says Council of Imams and Preachers official Sheikh Mohamed Khalifa.

Unsurprisingly, the Gay and Lesbian Association of Kenya (GALCK) thinks otherwise. "His statement of supporting legal unions for gay people was in the American context, where there are no criminal sections for homosexuals. Homosexuals pay taxes just like everyone else. In Kenya, we are first looking for equal treatment, so Obama's statement is bold," says GALCK legal officer Anthony Oluoch.

"An American citizen"

Job Waka, a young aspiring politician in Nairobi, believes the world leader still has some clout.

"I wouldn't say Obama is not popular in Kenya," he says. "He remains a role model and a beacon of hope, especially for the youth. Kenyans forget he is an American citizen - in fact, the American President - so he just cannot wake up one day and decide to visit his village in Kogelo as they imagine he should. There are matters of foreign policy that come into play. He still remains a brilliant politician though."

But does the US agree with Waka? Come 6 November, Kenya and the rest of the world will find out.

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