Saturday, June 14, 2008

Africa's take on Obama

Lilongwe, Malawi
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.


A^2 said...

I remember during your first trip in 2005 your observation that many Americans wouldn't wear their flag on their backpacks out of fear of being identified as American. They simply didn't want to be categorized and held responsible for what Bush was doing.

It'll be nice to hear questions about something aside from Bush or 9/11.

So...would the hopeful queries still be there if it was Hillary that was the Democratic candidate? Is it Obama that's giving hope or simply someone that's not Bush (or Republican)?

Brook Silva-Braga said...

I think, first of all, most of europe (and much of the world) is closer politically to democrats than republicans. then, specifically, many dislike bush (though many also like him quite a bit in africa and elsewhere).
but i think much of it is obama-specific; the idea that we may elect an African-American while virtually the entire western world is run by white people (and/or majority groups). i think it was frank rich in the ny times last week who suggested egyptians like obama because its an example of America being the place where barriers are broken