A skinny kid with a funny name erupted at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July 2004 and enthralled America. In October 2006 David Brooks, New York Times columnist, wrote, “the next Democratic nominee should either be Barack Obama or should have the stature that would come from defeating Barack Obama”.
On January 20, 2009, Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th American to take the presidential oath. In the last year of his second term, Obama is coming to Kenya this Friday, the first visit to Kenya by an American president.
Obama has been to many countries, some more powerful and strategically more valuable to the US than Kenya. But there is no other country on Earth where his visit invokes greater emotion and expectation, pride and symbolism. Obama’s visit is in every sense conceivable a veritable homecoming for the world’s most powerful man.
President Obama’s father was born in Kogelo village in Alego, Siaya County. He grew up herding goats and went school in a tin-roof shack. Obama’s father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, and met his mother, a woman born in Kansas.
The highlight of Obama’s visit will be bilateral agreements – trade; security; technical assistance – nothing extraordinary. But I believe there must be more to show after the ink on the agreements has faded. Obama’s visit could yield something more enduring for the Kenyan people.
Kenya is still traumatized by the orgy of mindless murders of 2007. Our souls and bodies bear the scars, and the memories of lost loved ones are eternally engraved in our broken hearts. Everyday, through their actions and words, politicians remind us of just how ethnically fractured we are. They remind us everyday that 2007 could happen again. They remind us that nationhood remains a hollow, distant dream.
Our politicians remind us everyday that public service is not about the building a better society for all but about appropriating power and accumulating personal wealth. Our politicians remind us everyday that this nation belongs to a cabal of the greedy and powerful few who are not bound by ethics of laws.
Convinced that politics is about self-aggrandizement, 60 percent of Kenya’s youth will not vote unless they are bribed. Over 25 percent of Kenya’s youth believe it is okay not to pay taxes. A majority of youth thinks corruption and ethnic bigotry is normal, and that our society has no place for merit.
When he speaks to President Kenyatta and leaders of the opposition he must persuade them to distrust hubris and righteous zeal. Politics must be about conversation, deliberation and reconciliation. National politics must be driven by the ability to persuade one another of common aims borne of shared values.
Obama’s message on war on terror must caution against erosion of civil liberties and extrajudicial killings. Muslims and Somalis who have been treated unjustly in the so-called war against terror must believe, once again, that their rights as citizens are protected under the law.
Obama and his delegation must be mindful that any deal or agreement that comes out of this historic visit will amount to nothing unless we turn the jangling discord our country into a beautiful symphony of one indivisible nation.
Obama must use stature and ancestral connection to Kenya to inspire Kenyan youth. Obama’s personal story – a skinny kid with a funny name who dared believe that America has a place for him too – must cause young people to aspire to be their best selves. We need to believe in our country and ourselves again. Kenya will never again so completely require the gifts and stature of Barack Obama.
Speaking at the White House press conference on the Iran nuclear deal last week Obama spoke about Kenya in the most heartfelt way. He said, “Kenya is an incredibly gifted and blessed country”.
Obama’s historic visit must sow the seeds of hope and aspiration in a land where politicians have fed citizens the rotten meat of corruption and the stale bread of ethnic bigotry. We must love and believe in this country again.
We all must find the courage to fight impunity and corruption, and resist the stifling mediocrity of ethnic division and hatred. Kenya must rise as a beacon of hope, liberty and equal opportunity for Kenyans of all tribes, races, religions, men and women and yes, gay and straight.