Thursday, November 20, 2008



BY WAMBUI MWANGI (2008-08-11)
I am finding it very difficult to join in the jubilation about Senator
Barack Obama. Not that I want to deny the man his victory, but my
impulse to celebrate keeps deflating on the idea that the best thing
that happened to little Barack was not growing up in Kenya .

I have been imagining alternative trajectories for him if he had come to
know the world through the eyes of a Kenyan citizen, if his mother and
grandparents had not rescued him from our chaos and contradictions and
brought him up somewhere his intellect and talent could grow.

If he had grown up here, and had he somehow managed to retain most
elements of his current self, he would have been another outstanding,
intelligent and competent Luo man in our midst: and he would have been

Yes, we would have assassinated a Barack Obama if he had remained ours,
with us, one of us here in this schizophrenic cauldron we call home.
This is not going to stretch the imagination of any Kenyan - after all,
when we had that incredibly good-looking and charismatic home-grown
hero, Tom Mboya, we shot him to death. And when that austerely
intellectual and elegant leader, Robert Ouko, threatened to look overly
intelligent to the world, we killed him too. We killed Pio Gama Pinto
and we killed JM Kariuki. There is no reason to suppose that Barack
Obama, whose integrity of purpose and stringent sense of ethics even his
enemies concede, would have survived his Kenyan roots.

He is much too intelligent, too charged with the promise of history, too
bold in his claim to a shining destiny, too full of the audacity of
hope, for us to have let him survive. Kenya would have killed Barack
Obama, or at least his dream, as we inevitably destroy, in one way or
another, the best and the boldest of us. Goldenberg whistle blower David
Munyakei's challenge to his country to be bigger than our greed was met
with a whimper, and then with rapid abandonment. We did not deserve him,

As for John Githongo, he should have known better than to take the idea
of public ethics seriously - this is Kenya, after all. Let him enlighten
people at Oxford instead; such considerations are too virtuous for us,
too sensible, too conducive to a promising future. We do not even remark
on the haunting wastage of all this shining accomplishment - Micere Mugo
sings her lyrical poetry for Americans, and we do not even know enough
to mourn the loss.

And yet we are all enchanted with the power of the idea of Barack Obama,
the hope of him, the beauty of his life's trajectory, the universe of
possibilities and probabilities that it conjures for the least of the
rest of us. If someone's cousin's friend's neighbour makes it to the
United States ... then we all have a chance. We have a strange
predilection for schizophrenic loves and loyalties; we let geography
dictate our alliances and imaginary lines decide our friends. It is as
if our social contract states that here, at home, we are obliged to
behave like fighting rats to each other but when abroad, when released
from the shackles of kin and clan and conclave, we can fly and soar and
master the sky.

When Wangari Maathai is abroad, we feel that her Nobel Prize is partly
represented in each of our Kenyan living rooms; when she comes home, she
is just another Kikuyu politico. We preen about our athletes winning yet
another international competition to anybody who will give us half a
chance, but when they are at home we turn them into more fodder for

Caine Prize winners are Kenyan by automatic assent, but Binyavanga
Wainaina is a Kikuyu writer when at home and Yvonne Owuor is indelibly a
Luo - we shrink them to fit the midget-sized visions we have of

It is clear to all of us, and the evidence continues to accrue, that we
have, collectively, a certain global competence, as Kenyans, that we
produce individuals of substance and historical purpose.

Being Kenyan, however, we prefer to drown in the pettiness of our
parochial quarrels when at home, and if one of us threatens to be too
hopeful, too ambitious, too intelligent, too creative or too
inspirational to fit into our trivial little categories of hatred and
suspicion, we kill them, or exile them from our societies, or we just
cause them to run away inside, hiding from us and from themselves the
grandeur of their souls, the splendid landscapes of their imagined

Nothing but the worst for us, at home. We recognise each other by our
most rancid rhetoric. We insist upon it, we cultivate it, we elevate it
to an art
form: Kenyan, and quarrelsome.

Kenyan, and clannish... Kenyan, and counter-productive. Kenyan, and
self-destructive. Kenyan, and consistently heart-breaking. Genius
everywhere and not a thought to be had. Promise and potential
everywhere, and not an opportunity to be had. Money everywhere and not
an honest penny to be earned. Helicopters aplenty, but no help for the
needy. A land awash in Cabinet ministers and poverty.

I have been watching Kenyans getting high on Obamamania, and I am
wondering what we are so happy about? It is perhaps that we are
beginning to acknowledge what we should always have known - given a half
a chance, an ever so slightly conducive context, Kenyans are more likely
to over-achieve than not. At the faintest provocation, Kenyans will leap
past expectations without breaking their stride or breaking a sweat,
especially if they happen to have escaped the imprisoning edifice we
call home and found foreign contexts to flourish in, no matter how

I went to a town in the Canadian Arctic once, in the far north, where in
summer the sun shines even at midnight and in the winter the world is an
endless landscape of ice and snow. Here, far, far away from home, where
nothing was familiar except the gentleness of elderly Inuit women and
the comforting weirdness of the white residents, I was told that the
local dentist had, for many years, been a Kenyan. Everybody said he had
been an excellent dentist, out there in the desert of the cold. I was

We are an adventurous people, we Kenyans, and we take to the world
outside our home as if born to a conquistador culture - we are brave and
brash and bold, out there. We buy and sell things, and make money at it,
out there. We go to school and excel and cover ourselves with
accreditations, out there.

We win things, out there. We get prizes, out there. We are at our best,
out there. However, at home, for some reason we refuse to either acknowledge or
examine we have chosen simply to set aside this capacity.

Here, at home,nothing but the very lowest common denominator will do; nothing but the
basest and most brutal aspects of our selves are to be presented to each
other; nothing but the most cynical manipulation is the basis of our
political space. We prefer to be ruled by individuals whose mediocrity
is matched only by their mendacity, here at home.

We prefer to abdicate our adult responsibilities and capacity for reason
to "leaders" whose lack of virtue is as legendary as our attractively
exotic pastoralists. We do not only waste talent, here at home - we go
out of our way to suppress and repress it. We do not only deny dreams,
here in Kenya - we devour them, and ask each other, "Who do you think
you are?" As if the success of another is an affront.

In Kenya , grand vision and soaring imagination is illegitimate; here,
they just call you naive. Out there, you stand a chance of becoming a
hero; at home, you will have nothing but the taste of ashes in your
mouth. Mothers, take your children abroad.

Barack Obama has written two books, in which he discusses ideas. Ideas.
This is a man with vision and conviction, and enough good ideas that
even those who do not like the pigmentally-advantaged are listening, and
changing their minds.

Even those who think that his name sounds suspiciously like a
terrorist's are reading his books and listening to his speeches, and
changing their minds. This is a man with interesting and inspiring
things to say - which disqualifies him from any Kenyan-ness we would
have liked to claim.

Americans like the image of them that Barack Obama has painted in words;
which Kenyan leader would dare to build dreams bigger than his roots?
Which Kenyan leader would ever be so foolish as to attempt inspiration
instead of instigation?

Barack Obama has seduced the world by the power of his persuasiveness,
and while Kenyans raise another glass to the accomplishments of "one of
our own," it seems clear to me that we gave up our rights to him when we
gave up our hopes for ourselves. When we settled for incompetence, and
corruption, and callousness, we defined ourselves out of his universe,
and out of his dreams.

We rejected Barack Obama-ness when we allowed those pangas to slash our
dreams, when we watched our hopes spiral away in smoke. We allowed the
ones who had done this to become the only mirrors of ourselves, and then
squelched our disgraced selves back to the mire of our despondency.

Barack Obama cannot be a Kenyan, and Kenyans cannot grasp Barack Obama's
dream. We have already despaired of it, and of ourselves. His dream
would have died with ours, here at home, here in the graveyard of hope.

But oh, how we yearn to see ourselves reflected in his eyes...

*Wambui Mwangi is an assistant professor of Political Science at the
University of Toronto, Canada. This article first appeared in The East
African, June 15 2008.