Oh, Obama! Young Buck's Already Big in Kenya

[This article originally appeared in the 8/2/2004 edition of The New York Observer.]

Uhuru Kenyatta and Barack Obama have a lot in common. They both have Kenyan fathers. They are a year apart in age. (Mr. Kenyatta is 43, Mr. Obama, 42.) They are both in politics.

In his dazzling keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention Tuesday night, Mr. Obama called himself as “a skinny kid with a funny name.” That description could just as easily fit the wiry Mr. Kenyatta—at least to Americans, who are unlikely to know that in Kenya, his name is synonymous with political power. Mr. Kenyatta’s father, Jomo, the first president of independent Kenya, held something close to demigod status among his subjects until his death in 1978. Kenyatta fils has already campaigned for his country’s presidency once, finishing second in the 2002 elections. As the head of Kenya’s largest opposition party, he looks well-positioned hold his father’s old job one day.

But on Tuesday night, it was the dynastic scion who stood in the upper reaches of the Fleet Center, looking for all the world like a rank party foot soldier as he waved a blue poster emblazoned with Mr. Obama’s name, the crowd roared, and Democrats’ newest star took the stage.

“Yeah!” Mr. Kenyatta shouted. Then, grinning widely, he turned and exchanged some excited words in Swahili with the man sitting next to him, Kenya’s local government minister.

Their giddiness was understandable. Before he gave his convention speech, Mr. Obama may have been an unknown to those outside America’s political junkie circles. But in Kenya, he’s a household name. Local newspapers carry regular updates on the candidacy of the half-Kenyan Senate candidate from Illinois. A brand of beer called “Senator” is popular at pubs around Nairobi; customers order it by asking for a round of “Obamas.”

The enthusiasm has reached Kenya’s political elite, too. The government sent a high-powered, bipartisan delegation of politicians to the convention, including Mr. Kenyatta. In part, they were in Boston to talk, network and party, like everyone else. But they also had a more specific goal: To meet Mr. Obama, whom they see as a potential ally to a continent that has far too few of them. (Mr. Obama, who has no Republican election opponent, is almost certain to join the Senate in January.)

“I think it’s important that someone of Kenyan descent will be in the Senate,” Mr. Kenyatta said. “Someone with a sense of African issues, and especially of Kenyan issues.”

The Kenyans’ Obama odyssey began earlier in the day, at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge. There, they were invited guests at a conference sponsored by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), an organization affiliated with the Democratic Party that sponsors programs to promote democracy worldwide. The conference is a quadrennial event. Organizers bring together politicians and government officials from around the world to talk about weighty subjects like free trade and nuclear proliferation and, as important, to dole out a few precious passes into the convention hall to select foreign dignitaries. At a time when Senator John Kerry is trying to sell his message of an America that’s respected abroad, it’s a small way to buy a bit of goodwill among bigwigs beyond our borders. And this year’s convention, held at a time when much of the world’s attention is focused on this election, and its effects on American foreign policy, drew a record crowd: More than 600 dignitaries from 120 countries. Among the speakers they heard from was former President Bill Clinton, who dropped in unannounced to attend a roundtable discussion with the erstwhile leaders of Brazil, Portugal, Bolivia, Ireland and Canada.

Tuesday morning, though, the Kenyans were less concerned with David Gergen’s panel discussion on the dynamics of the 2004 election than they were transfixed by the single issue that dominates every political convention: access. They wanted to meet Mr. Obama, but they weren’t sure how to go about it. During the conference’s lunch break, the Kenyan delegates sat down around a small table at the Charles Hotel bar with a reporter and an NDI staff member and discussed how to secure an audience the Democratic Party’s star of the moment.

“We’re hoping to get something set up for tomorrow, after he gives his speech,” said Raila Odinga, Kenya’s minister of roads, public works and housing. Odinga wore a tidy gray beard and a gray pinstripe suit, and carried a cotton handkerchief. He is also the head of Kenya’s Liberal Democratic Party, and after the president, probably the second-most powerful man in his country. But the fact that Mr. Odinga was a Big Man back in Nairobi didn’t seem to matter much in Boston. Even though, as it turned out, Mr. Odinga did have a kind of connection.

“I was friends with Barack Obama, the father,” Mr. Odinga said. The story the younger Mr. Obama’s parentage is well known by now: Barack Obama Sr., the son of a relatively well-to-do Kenyan farmer, went to the United States as a student, and met Mr. Obama’s mother in Hawaii, where they married and had a son. Obama Sr. won a scholarship to Harvard, left his family, and eventually returned to Kenya, where he became a prominent economist and civil servant. Except for one brief visit, the younger Mr. Obama never saw his father again. He died in a car accident in 1982.

His son may not have been acquainted with him, but Barack Obama Sr. was well-known to the Kenyans sitting around the table. They were all members of the same small, educated ruling elite. Furthermore, he and Mr. Odinga were both members of the Luo tribe. “He was from a place called Alego, which is actually where my mother comes from,” Mr. Odinga said.

Rose Waruhiu, another politician, said that her husband had gotten to know Obama Sr. because they had both studied abroad. “In those days, these people who came from America were very different,” she said. She and other others remembered the Senate candidate’s father as a jolly, sociable fellow. (In a book he wrote about his search for his roots in Kenya, Mr. Obama says that he discovered that his father was also a heavy drinker.)

“He was a great achiever,” Waruhiu said. “He had this very powerful voice. ‘I’m Barack Obama!’”

“EHHHH!” Mr. Odinga said, nodding in agreement.

“Obviously, we Kenyans are excited about the prospect of someone having Kenyan roots being elected to the U.S. Senate, purely from a biological point of view,” Mr. Odinga continued. “We think this is a great achievement. We see this as part of the historical struggle … to liberate people of African descent.”

“We’re really looking forward to being in the hall today,” Mr. Kenyatta added. “To see the reaction [and] the mood of the delegates themselves.”

The NDI staff member said she’d see what she could do. Mr. Kenyatta, lighting a cigarette, ambled off to have lunch at an outdoor seafood restaurant.

That evening, the Kenyans gathered with the rest of the conference attendees at a restaurant on the Boston waterfront. There was good news: NDI had secured them passes to the convention hall, which would assure them seats for Mr. Obama’s speech. Even better, someone had scored a couple of invitations to a private after-party in Mr. Obama’s honor, which was to be held at a downtown nightclub. There was no word yet on the private meeting, though.

As they stood waiting for a bus to take them to the convention hall, Catherine Gicheru, a dreadlocked Kenyan newspaper editor who was also attending the conference, cornered Mr. Odinga to talk political strategy. “We have to make sure he gets [elected],” she said. “A win for him here is a win for us on the other side.”

(Later, after hearing Mr. Obama’s speech, Ms. Gicheru would be even more effusive. “I think he should be the [Democratic] candidate,” she said. “He’s much more electrifying than what’s-his-name …
Kerry.”)

The Kenyans nibbled on pizza and cheese cubes and ordered beers from the cash bar. Mr. Kenyatta reflected on the differences he perceived between American democracy and the Kenyan model, based on what he’d seen at the convention. “Let’s just say it’s interesting,” he said. Mr. Kenyatta was struck by the opulence of the lobbyist-sponsored shindigs, the amount of security around the convention hall, and the utter lack of spontaneity at the podium. Though he didn’t mention it, Kenya is a lot different: Its last election featured a party-switching vice president, rallies that turned to riots, and worries that the outgoing president might refuse to hand over power to the election winner. By African standards, the exercise was considered a great success.

Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga were on opposing sides of that election. But in Boston, they got on famously. When the bus arrived, they got on together. They sat next to one another on the ride over to the convention hall, sharing in-jokes in Swahili.

Brionne Dawson, a statuesque NDI staff member, led the Kenyans into the Fleet Center and to their seats. Along the way, they passed the Rev. Al Sharpton, trailed by a retinue of hangers-on and TV cameras. Mr. Odinga, who had never heard of Mr. Sharpton, whirled around to take a closer look at the curious rotund reverend. Finally, the group arrived at their seats, which were one row down from the topmost in the hall—closer to the thousands of red-white-and-blue balloons penned against the ceiling, waiting to be dropped, than to the speakers on the dais.

The national anthem played, and Mr. Odinga hummed along. (“I know the tune very well,” he told Mr. Kenyatta.) They listened to a long parade of speakers. Ted Kennedy: “a very good orator,” in Mr. Odinga’s estimation. Richard Gephardt: “very uninspiring.” Ms. Dawson organized a security-chaperoned walk around the convention floor. When the Kenyans returned, she had come up with some “Obama” posters. Mr. Odinga gave her a disposable camera, and she took a picture of the Kenyans holding their signs with the convention floor as a backdrop.

Then Mr. Obama took the stage.

“Tonight, is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely,” he began. “My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack.”

The Kenyans exchanged approving glances. Most Africans, even powerful ones, have herded a few goats in their time.

Mr. Obama went on to talk about what he called “the true genius of America … the insistence on small miracles,” and made an implicit comparison with his father’s home continent.

“That we can tuck in our children at night and know they are fed and clothed and safe from harm. That we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door. That we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe or hiring somebody’s son. That we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will be counted—or at least, most of the time.”

The Kenyans nodded knowingly.

Mr. Obama was just warming up. When he hit the big applause lines, the hall leapt to its feet, drowning out his speech with deafening applause. Uhuru Kenyatta shook an index finger and grinned approvingly.

“He can speak!” Mr. Kenyatta shouted.

Afterwards, the lights went up and the Kenyan politicians eagerly dissected Mr. Obama’s oratory. “Exciting. Wonderful. Electrifying,” Mr. Kenyatta said.

“It makes you feel proud,” said Musikari Kombo, a government minister who was sitting next to Mr. Kenyatta. “We can also produce people of that kind.”

Shortly afterwards, everyone got up to leave. Mr. Kenyatta was tired and headed back to the hotel. Messrs. Kombo and Odinga, on the other hand, went to the after-party. It was frightfully crowded, and Mr. Obama was surrounded by well-wishers. “You could see that the people in there were really holding the man in awe,” Mr. Kombo would later recall.

Somehow, the two Kenyans managed to elbow their way into the swarm, and to have a brief conversation with Mr. Obama. “It was a one-minute exchange,” Mr. Kombo said. But the visitors left satisfied that Kenya had a friend in Mr. Obama, and to them, that was what was important.

“What I’ve been looking forward to is the introduction,” Mr. Kombo said. “That is more important for now. So that the bridge is there.”