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By Peter Anyang' Nyongo'
18th November, 2012
On that evening in early December 1995, if my memory serves me right, Prof. Roger Kent Oden, a colleague of mine at the University of Chicago where we both did our graduate work in Political Science in the seventies, invited a Kenyan neighbor to his Hyde Park residence for tea where I was spending a week's holiday with him. That neighbor was Barrack Obama.
Barrack had just failed in his first attempt to be elected to the Illinois State Congress, and Oden was one of his campaigners in Hyde Park, part of the Congressional District where Obama had just contested a special Congressional primary election. He sat there in Ayodele and Roger Oden's living room not very enthusiastic to talk about the lost campaigns but more ready to hear the latest news from Kenya. I obliged, reminding him that I had known his late father, and actually filled in as the father's driver in the evenings in the late seventies and early eighties when I was lecturing at Nairobi University.
I could not have guessed that this lean and calm University of Chicago law lecturer, with an ambition to join Illinois state politics, would one day brave the odds to become the first African-American president of the US, and to be re-elected for a second term.
Whatever happened recently during his first term as President of the US several years later with regard to Kenya need not occupy us too much now. What we need to focus on are the ties that bind us with him, and hence the strings in these ties that we must pull and tighten to our advantage and to the advantage of Americans. We must make it easier for Obama to link us with the US, because now he is in a position to get news from Kenya with the pressing of a button in the White House. I will tell you how.
Americans, whatever race or country of origin, never forsake their roots. Few that do only do so because economically they cannot visit their motherland, and after several generations the offsprings can only narrate nostalgic stories of a home they once left behind. For African-Americans, Alex Haley's publication of his book ROOTS: The Saga of An American Family in 1976 brought home the reality of Africa to all the descendants of the slave trade and slavery. All Americans of African descent could trace their steps to their original homes and mere nostalgia could now be replaced by a sense of adventure by a people who could rebuild their own history. African-Americans, in the post-Roots period, started visiting West Africa in their hundreds of thousands every year. They started to replace their Anglo-Saxon names with West African once, like Kwame Toure instead of Stockley Carmichael.
One wonders why Obama cannot kindle an interest in Kenya among African-Americans the way Haley's Roots did it in the late seventies with regard to West Africa. That keen interest on Kenya that Obama showed Roger and I is still there, but as President it has to be shielded away within a morass of bureaucracy and policy-makers in the US government. We have to get through this shield and reach Obama the Kenyan. Our Ambassador in Washington, and all those diaspora Kenyans who are always hungry to do something for their country, have their job cut out for them. Somehow, like Roger and Ayodele Oden, they must break the shield and invite Barrack for tea to begin something going, something which will make a difference for us in Obama's second term. Who, if elected President of Kenya, is likely to take up this agenda and run with it?
But more than that, let us not let the Kogelo people down. Twice they have helped propel Kenya into international headlines, with prime audiences glued to their TV sets during US presidential elections. BBC commentators, while reporting on the just concluded US elections, never stopped reporting on what was happening in Kenya, particularly Kogelo. As a tourist destination, we must build on this. There are many Americans who could do anything to come to Kenya and just experience what this country is all about, particularly Kogelo. Let us invite them for tea! If the tourism industry and its Ministry have any shred of imagination they need to pick the cue from this tremendous exposure and run with it.
Let us not forget that the American President, among other things, is an intellectual and an avid writer and reader. Let us rope in UNESCO in what I am just about to propose.
Johan Galtung, the Scandinavian academic well known for his conflict and peace studies and writings, made history by calling upon us to focus more on looking at the political economy of the "structures of peace" if we were to find real solutions to conflicts. A prior existence of structures of peace would readily minimize the emergence of conflicts; and where conflicts are a menace their elimination by sheer military might may only be temporary if structures of peace don't follow in the wake of any defeat in a war or suppression of so called rebels.
One of Galtung's most famous quotes, very relevant to conflicts anywhere in the world today, runs as follows. "The top dog may win the game of force. But not the moral issue--and when that dawns upon him and his allies, change of consciousness sets in, and demoralization starts thawing the frozen heart. The game is over."
President Obama's first term was preoccupied with dealing with conflicts across the globe, from Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria, from the Arab Spring to pirates in the Indian Ocean, from the insecurity in Latin America caused by drug cartels and warlords to a Pakistan equally threatened by national disintegration by drug cartels and religious fundamentalism. Kenya is best placed, with the support of UNESCO and UNDP, to invite the world to an international conference on "Building Structures of Peace in a Conflict Ravaged World." Barack Obama is to be invited to open this conference and to stay for a week visiting his fatherland. Many people will come to Kenya after that if such a conference is well publicized and organized.