I’ve had a request from one of the most wonderful people in the world, who shall remain nameless (to keep you all guessing), to speak a little about the Obama-factor of living in kenya. Let me say, like all things Kenyan, it’s interesting.
As most people in the States know by now, Obama’s father was a Kenyan native, and actually to get more specific he was a Luo (one of Kenya’s more prominent tribes), and to get even more specific he was of a sub-tribe of the Luo whose name would require some Wikipedia searching on my behalf. I won’t do it, because, well, I am lazy. Also, anytime I venture into Wikipedia it’s a good hour of clicking various links before I get back to why I was there in the first place. And I really want to write this instead.
The Luo inhabit mostly the western portion of the country, near the shores of Lake Victoria. They are a strong fishing based community, I believe. They are also, like the other major tribes of Kenya (Kikuyu, Kikamba, Maasai…) prone to more prominent displays of tribe-ism. What is tribe-ism you ask? Good question!
It’s Kenyan racism. Just as in America we have streotypical jokes about different nationalities usually involving one-armed individuals, trees, waving, pennies, shoe laces, submarines with screen doors, or other inventive situations Kenyans have the same thing. Though of course all the jokes are in Kenyan mentality and are usually not funny to a Westerner.
There are also very apparent tribal inconsistencies in power, and thus once in a blue moon, tribe-ism results in violence. It was itner-tribal violence that forced Peace Corps to pull out after the election in 2007. To this day, Kikuyu have told me they cannot go out west to Luo territory without fearing for their lives. All tribes are to blame in this, as no one tribe has ever dominated in the tribe-ism area. They are all tribist equally.
This tribe-ism has died down in recent times. Especially with this current generation of youth you are seeing less and less tribe-ism. It is mostly from the generation of individuals who were alive and thus affected by early political decisions made at the time of Kenyan independence. Yet even amongst that generation you will have intermarriage and multi-tribal communities (Loitokitok is a perfect example, almost all major tribes being well represented). So, even though Kenyan tribe-ism is very apparent, it is actually mostly superficial except in government.
But this post is about Obama. So why all of this about tribe-ism? I will get to that later. First, the immediate impact of Obama. Well, there’s a beer about him. It’s named Senator beer and it is a very inexpensive beer, being brewed under the mentality of providing Kenyans with a safe (as in production standards) beer to drink because too many people were dying drinking home-made distilled spirits. Also children are named for him and his wife. One PCV had a home-stay sister, nine years old, who changed her Christian (read: english) name to Michelle.
Local drinking establishments have also repainted their facades and now tout names like Obama Pub and Obama Bar and Obama Wine and Spirits. There are at least three unique establishments like this in Mtongwe/Likoni area alone. Dogs are named for Obama as well (I met one just friday night). Laso and Kikoi fabric have pictures of Obama with the Kenyan flag in the background and some of the most popular music over here are reggae and hip hop songs that sample from his speeches.
Needless to say, he’s popular. But as always, this is a double-edged sword. There are Kenyans who now call themselves Americans. There are Kenyans who say Kenya is the 50th, or 51st, or 52nd State of the Union (depending on education level). Alone, these are seemingly harmless [holy crap i think a bush baby just exploded outside my window], but they become more of a nuisance when Kenyans begin to genuinely beleive they should get easier applications for Green Cards. It becomes even more of a nuisance when Kenyans start to get angry about this. Thankfully this last case is a very small case.
As for me, I watched the inauguration at my neighbor’s house. It was nice, but it makes me wonder how much of what he’s actually saying is getting processed. His speech is very different from Kenyan English, and it seems the love for Obama is only because he is a Kenyan, and not because of his proclaimed shifts in policies or whatnot. This superficial love is highlighted again by the Green Card issue. I have stopped attempting to seriously explain that Obama is not going to just give a Green Card to every Kenyan who asks. I would be interested to see if there has been a drastic spike in Embassy inquiries in Nairobi about applying for U.S. residency.
Obviously not all Kenyans fit this bill. In fact, there are even Kenyans who fully understand the notion of free democratic elections and when I explained that I initially did not vote for Obama (I was an Edwards guy up until the minute I found out he was a cheater too), they understood that and thought it was ok. My vote, my choice. However, these seem to be more a minority than anything else, and I fully admit, I rock an Obama sticker on my nalgene as much as a security blanket as a show of support.
Let’s go back to the tribe-ism though. I am simply intrigued that all Kenyans love Obama even though they are all very well aware of his tribe. This lends hope to the notion that tribe-ism really is on its way out because this country would be far better off because of it. Language alone would help increase learning and information retention because you might be able to eliminate one language from the Kenyans’ culture: mother tongues.
They are good and all, don’t get me wrong, but it’s difficult to master a single language and learn to express complex thoughts when you speak one language at home, one language with friends and in the community and one language at school. Tanzania has almost 300 tribes compared to Kenya’s 43 and yet they managed to get everyone speaking Kiswahili, possibly because they do not use English in any official capacity. But all of that is for another post. This one is already pretty long and I know some of my more ardent readers will complain 😉 Ta ta for now. More to come later as always.