You might think Barack Obama would be real popular here in Africa. You might think Africans take some pride in the success of an African-American, that they feel a connection to him the way the Irish may have enjoyed the success of Jack Kennedy.
These days, I’d say that’s somewhat true.
But its been striking these last months to observe Obama’s emergence in the African consciousness. In February, in West Africa it was rare to meet someone who had even heard of the leading Democratic candidate. They knew about Hillary Clinton though, and liked her.
Landing in Kenya in late-April was a quick remedy for Obama’s surprisingly low profile. But even though he was well known and well liked, he wasn’t necessarily seen as a native son. When I leadingly asked a man in Nairobi what he thought of a Kenyan being president of the U.S. he didn’t take the bait.
“Oh no, he’s not a Kenyan, he’s an American,” he said.
In fact, as often as I’ve seen a Malawian sit in rapt attention as Jesse Jackson gives a speech on TV, I’ve heard from a Malian that Africans go to the developed world and forget the folks back home. (Indeed, a shocking and oft-repeated fact to help explain the health crises in Malawi is this nugget: There are more Malawian doctors in Manchester, England than all of Malawi).
I’ve never heard the term “African-American” used by an African; the word is “black.”
The relationship on this side of the disapora can be complicated, no less so since the U.S. and Europe aren’t viewed as welcoming to those who would like to work—or even vacation—in the rich world.
And there are familiar concerns for Obama’s candidacy here, mainly the question ‘Can a black man be elected?’ Some here are certain he can’t. And many aren’t sure he should be elected, still suspecting that Hillary would be better or McCain deserves consideration.
The most loyal constituency here are the ex-pats—Europeans and Americans—who live within the swirling complexity of racial injustice everyday and who may see Obama as a fulfillment of some struggle they know they are part of even if its nameless. The Dutch doctor who insists President Bush is a war criminal has an Obama campaign sign above his dining room table. He thinks Obama could change the world, could make America a positive force rather than a destructive one. Even he knows expectations are unrealistic.
But for a long time traveling as an American has meant getting browbeat about our current president. It’s refreshing now to be asked with hope and admiration about our next one.