DENVER–“America has come very far,” Charity Ngilu said.
Sitting in a Denver cafe, sipping a cup of English tea, Ngilu—Kenya’s minister for water and irrigation, and the highest-ranking member of a small delegation of leaders from her nation who are attending the Democratic convention—was reflecting on the unlikely rise of Barack Obama. Four years ago, the obscure Illinois legislator introduced himself to delegates at the Boston convention—and, by electrifying extension, the entire world—as a “skinny kid with a funny name.” That name, of course, is Kenyan, and back in the country where it originated, they’re feeling vicariously triumphant that it is now known around the globe.
“I think a win for Obama,” Ngilu said, “would really change the world.”
It’s news to no one—especially the Republican National Committee—that Barack Obama is adored overseas. Still, it’s worth revisiting the unprecedented nature of his foreign appeal. No modern presidential contender has had foreign parentage, as Obama does, and none has been tied more closely to another land. Obama’s father was not just any Kenyan, but a prominent member of the country’s political elite. During this campaign, journalists have burrowed into Barack Obama Sr.’s life story, discovering a seemingly endless stream of prospective presidential half-siblings, while conservative activists have attacked Barack Obama Sr.’s supposed socialist leanings. The unusual, and often uncomfortable, relationship between the candidate and Kenya has emerged as a central tension in his campaign–underscoring an uneasy sense, in some sectors of the electorate, that there is something not quite American about him.
Ngilu and the rest of her delegation–which also included Peter Ogego, the Kenyan ambassador to the United States, and Ann Njogu, a politician and women’s rights advocate–were in Denver, in part, to send a message to Americans: Don’t be afraid. The delegation attended the convention as participants in the International Leaders Forum, an event sponsored by the National Democratic Institute, a foreign aid organization affiliated with the Democratic Party. Participants in the forum were able to attend some sessions of the convention, and also participated in a series of seminars and round-table discussions sponsored by NDI. One of them featured former President Bill Clinton, along with a number of other retired world leaders; another, on poverty reduction, featured the actor Ben Affleck. The events offer a rare opportunity for politicians from other countries to interact with their American counterparts–and for the Kenyans, an opportunity to advocate for their favored candidate. During a discussion of the media’s role in the campaign, which featured The Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot and several other prominent journalists, Ann Njogu stood up to condemn what she saw as harsh media scrutiny.
“Kenyans like the rest of the world are indeed proud of the Barack Obama candidature—not because of his origin, but because of the kind of change that he portrays and intends to bring to the world scene on foreign policy,” said Njogu, who wore a long orange robe and had cascading head of corkscrew-curled hair. “I am curious though to know what the real motivation of the American press is in really emphasizing on the American and African roots of Barack Obama as opposed to seeking to advance the real change that he would be standing for.”
Gigot responded that Obama’s background was a valid issue, but assured Njogu, “The fact that he has that foreign heritage I think in the end will not make that much difference to most American voters.” E. J. Dionne, another member of the panel, said that he believed the adjective “exotic” was being used as a “code word.”
After that panel discussion ended, Njogu and Ngilu walked outside the theater where the forum was being held, and were promptly cornered by a pair of Kenyan journalists who’d been sent to cover Obama’s nomination. One of them had a television camera. Ngilu was a prominent member of the government back in Kenya. A decade ago, she was the first woman ever to run for the presidency of her country. Her presence in Denver was newsworthy back home.
“It’s so interesting to see how democracy has evolved in America,” Ngilu said into the camera. “It’s very mature, it’s peaceful and they are mostly talking about the issues.”