Thursday, July 19, 2007

Barack Obama: In to Africa...

(Image from Wikipedia)

To understand Barack Obama today, you have to know what he came to understand through his trip to Kenya. His earlier views on Third World, or even African solidarity took a few knocks.

Wanting to see more of Kenya, he decides to take a safari trip to the Great Rift Valley, so he and his half-sister Auma go to a travel agency in Nairobi. The agency is run by 'Asians' -- the British term for "South Indians" -- as are most small businesses in Nairobi, according to Barack.

These 'Asians' are not especially popular, as Obama comes to find out -- along with some other disappointing revelations. As he and Auma ride a van to the safari spot, he recalls that as they were purchasing their tickets at the travel agency, Auma had tensed up:
"You see how arrogant they are?" she had whispered as we watched a young Indian woman order her black clerks to and fro. "They call themselves Kenyans, but they want nothing to do with us. As soon as they make their money, they send it off to London or Bombay."

Her attitude touched a nerve. "How can you blame Asians for sending their money out of the country," I had asked her, "after what happened in Uganda?" I had gone on to tell her about the close Indian and Pakistani friends I had back in the States, friends who had supported black causes, friends who had lent me money when I was tight and had taken me into their homes when I'd had no place to stay. Auma had been unmoved.

"Ah, Barack," she had said. "Sometimes you're so naive."

I looked at Auma now, her face turned toward the window. What had I expected my little lecture to accomplish? My simple formulas for Third World solidarity had little application in Kenya. Here, persons of Indian extraction were like the Chinese in Indonesia, the Koreans in the South Side of Chicago, outsiders who knew how to trade and kept to themselves, working the margins of a racial caste system, more visible and so more vulnerable to resentment. It was nobody's fault necessarily. It was just a matter of history, an unfortunate fact of life.

Anyway, the divisions in Kenya didn't stop there: there were always finer lines to draw. Between the country's forty black tribes, for example. They, too, were a fact of life. You didn't notice the tribalism so much among Auma's friends, younger university-educated Kenyans who'd been schooled in the idea of nation and race; tribe was an issue with them only when they were considering a mate, or when they got older and saw it help or hinder careers. But they were the exceptions. Most Kenyans still worked with older maps of identity, more ancient loyalties. Even [Aunt] Jane or [Aunt] Zeituni could say things that surprised me. "The Luo are intelligent but lazy," they would say. Or "The Kikuyu are money-grubbing but industrious." Or "The Kalenjins -- well, you can see what's happened to the country since they took over."

Hearing my aunts traffic in such stereotypes, I would try to explain to them the error of their ways. "It's thinking like that that holds us back," I would say. "We're all part of one tribe. The black tribe. The human tribe. Look at what tribalism has done to places like Nigeria or Liberia."

And Jane woud say, "Ah, those West Africans are all crazy anyway. You know they used to be cannibals, don't you?"

And Zeituni would say, "You sound just like your father, Barry. He also had such ideas about people."

Meaning he, too, was naive; he, too, liked to argue with history. Look what happened to him.... (pages 347-348)
What had happened to the elder Obama was that as a Luo in a time of Kalenjin dominance, tribalism had lost him his political position, his status, his wealth, his power, leaving his family to bicker over the small inheritance bequeathed to them.

In looking at all of this, Obama suffered some rather poignant impressions of Africa. He doesn't attempt to paper the problems over, perhaps in part because of what on old friend of his father, the historian Dr. Rukia Odero, told him when he and Auma visited her in her Nairobi home:
"Truth is usually the best corrective." (page 434)
For the moment, I'll leave it at that...

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