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.”
To her audience in Kenya, the minister was drawing an obvious comparison. Four years ago, a substantial contingent of Kenyan politicians—including Raila Odinga, a presidential aspirant—traveled to Boston to hear Obama speak. This year, Ngilu told me, many were kept at home by pressing domestic issues. The last Kenyan election, held last December, was riddled with fraud and disputed by Odinga, the supposed narrow loser, and devolved into horrifying ethnic violence. The country is now ruled by a quarrelsome coalition government that includes both Odinga and his opponent, President Mwai Kibaki, and is only slowly returning to normal. Ngilu, a member of Odinga’s party, said that Kenyans were looking at America’s election with some measure of envy.
One of the Kenyan reporters asked Ngilu about a recent report in the Nairobi newspaper The Nation that suggested that Raila Odinga had canceled plans to attend this Democratic convention because he was named in Jerome Corsi’s book ObamaNation. (Corsi reportedly described him as a “Muslim sympathizer with well-known communist political roots”.) In an apparent attempt to appropriate a little bit of the Obama aura, Odinga has claimed that he is the American candidate’s distant cousin.
“I have not seen the book,” Ngilu replied. “I think we should not link our politics with American politics, because I think American politics are much higher than our village politics.”
Afterward, the two female politicians walked around the corner for lunch. Ngilu told me that she’d met Obama herself. When he visited the country last year as part of a senatorial mission to Africa, she escorted him on an excursion to a notorious Nairobi slum. Her friend Njogu said she’d been inspired by a speech Obama had given in which he’d talked frankly about Kenya’s ethnic divisions. The Obama family belongs to the Luo tribe, the one that rose up in Kenya after Odinga, also a Luo, was declared the loser of the 2007 election. During the crisis, Kenyans used to make a joke mordantly that the United States would have a Luo president before their country would.
“I’m seeing this kind of connection” between the Obama campaign and the Kenyan public, Ngilu said. “It’s like they all want to own him. They want him to understand that they expect so much of him.”
I mentioned that one line of attack on Obama, as Njogu had alluded to in her question to the panel, was the very thing that attracted the Kenyans to Obama—his unique roots.
“It’s going from what you know to what you don’t know,” Ngilu said. Then she added, jokingly, “Don’t put that sentence in because I will scare them.”
“I think, like the minister is saying, America is ripe for that real change,” Njogu added. “It presents a very big opportunity for Americans to really embrace growth. Because you can only grow when you move from your comfort zone.”
“For how long are the other nations of the world going to fear America?” the minister went on. “Maybe this is the person who the world has been waiting for, to bridge the gap."