Celebrating East African Writing!

Obama Oye!

Is your Obama fever over? Not mine, not just yet. I’m sure we all will remember exactly where we were when Barack Obama was announced the winner of the US presidential elections. I was in Washington DC, at a gay bar (no I’m not, since you are wondering!) less than ten minutes away from the White House (or shall we now call it the Black House?).

Where else would I get to hear a man scream, when Michelle Obama came out with the first (and cutest) kids to greet the victorious crowds, “Michelle, give me back my dress!”

Back in the city where I had lived for 15 years until last year, I wanted to be in a place where I could be dead sure there would be no Republican in sight. To my surprise, one of the guys sitting next to me had voted for Ralph Nader (who?), and another had voted for Bush in the previous elections! It takes all sorts.

As we all screamed and cried and hugged one another and were suitably and justifiably overwhelmed, I felt a small twinge of regret: why on earth had I left America, now that it has proved to be open enough to vote for a black president? Is it not the place I thought it was? Is it, in fact, the land of possibility, the land of change and renewal, even for black people?

As a number of editorials said the day after, we black people may have to give up our long held grudge against whites. Is racism dead, or at least in its death throes in America? Can we gleefully start banging nails into that damn coffin?

I know my own thinking and reactions to people around me began to change the very next day. Riding in the metro squashed among people black and white, I felt “I actually do have a right to be here! I am accepted here. Someone like me (sort of) has been found acceptable, to be more than acceptable, by a majority of these people. “Wow!”

This changed the very air I breathed in. I now realize I had walked around in a hostile blanket, assuming that the white people didn’t really want to sit next to me but had no choice. They didn’t really want to serve me in a restaurant but just had to. They didn’t really think I was qualified to work alongside them, but had to pretend. They really did think I was going to steal their merchandise and so followed me around their stores. They didn’t want me as a neighbour, didn’t want to go to school with the likes of me.

I hadn’t even been fully aware of this running commentary in my head, every day, everywhere in public. What heavy, ugly baggage to carry around.

Now I could smile. You and you and you had voted for someone like me? Shock and awe! You actually believe someone like me can lead you, or at least is better than Bush. Perhaps that wasn’t too hard!

At one street corner, I passed by an old black man singing his heart out, some jumpy blues tune, while jingling a cup for change. This is the black man most people see, and I must include myself here. On TV, we see the muscled sports stars, the rappers and gospel choirs. Everyday, all around me, black men in smart business suits and casual clothes fill the metro going to work.

Why aren’t they representative enough? What do we choose to see? In any case, now we are going to see, again and again and again, a black president. All I can say is ‘wow!’ Ok, there was Colin Powell right up there near the top, (although he is very light-skinned, which, unfortunately, matters) and we did see Condoleeza Rice, but she was on the wrong team!

Our collective sharing of that huge step as blacks, women, and black women had a slightly bitter taste because she was appointed by Bush and was his confidante. Don’t let me even mention Clarence Thomas. But now we have Barack Obama. Wow!

I’m sure all the liberal whites are thoroughly enjoying this moment too. They can feel less guilty now. They know they are not as racist as they secretly thought they were, as a group. At least there is full proof out there now – but look, we have a black president!

For me, having been an immigrant for 17 years, an African immigrant at that, there’s an even sweeter slice to this American pie. Obama is a new American. Everyone had to deal with his Kenyan roots, his “foreign” name that rhymed with Osama, no less! It didn’t bother them enough to reject him.

US President Hussein!? Pinch me. His name would have mattered enough for him to have lost some years ago, I’m sure, but evidently America has grown; it develops, it changes. All the immigrants out there, all the non-whites in fact, are affirmed by this choice. I know they are. Many of them made this choice happen, and now America is waking up to the fact that minorities are going to be minorities no more: their numbers matter. Wow!

And what about us here, back on the continent? What does it mean for us? My exhilaration is clouded with some sadness. Why can’t such a victory happen here, in Kenya, in Uganda, in Congo? Why can’t we peacefully go to the polls, have them counted properly, and have a peaceful change of government, have the people’s voices heard loud and clear? How can the Americans vote for a Luo and Kenya fail to?

I don’t think even one death was reported in this election, and yet so much more was at stake. Americans have got the system down. They realise that with each election, democracy itself is at stake: it must work. Not us. Not yet. When? For us, democracy remains a mirage, shimmering and elusive, ever in the distance. We can only plead with our leaders, get real! Or resort to pangas.


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