On a cool Saturday afternoon, the day before Kenya celebrated Madaraka Day (June 1 -- the anniversary of the date in 1963 when the country attained internal self-rule), I and several colleagues were having lunch at the home of Rosemarie Muganda-Onyando in Nairobi. Rosemarie, the director of the Centre for the Study of Adolescence and a friend of Population Action International -- for whom I worked -- had been instrumental in arranging logistics and interviews as we filmed our latest documentary, about married women and HIV. She had gathered over a dozen people in her home, many of whom work on women's health issues. Our conversations spanned topics from our children to USAID to Nairobi's biblical traffic jams.
The four of us who had arrived from the U.S. shared with the Kenyans a traditional meal, some of it unfamiliar and most of it delicious. We ate ugali, a boiled cornmeal dish that reminded me of grits, as well as a variety of salads and vegetable dishes and fish. Freshly pressed mango juice took the edge off some of the spicier dishes. It was a delicious way to spend an afternoon -- great food and light conversation.
It was only after many of the guests had left and there were just six women remaining that the conversation turned to the presidential elections in the U.S. There was such passion as the Kenyan women spoke about Barack Obama. "He is our son," one stated emphatically. They talked with awe of his father's birthplace in Nyanza Province, more than five hours away from where we were sitting in Nairobi. Barack's father was "brilliant," a woman asserted. "Everyone talked about how smart he was. It is the fish they eat there. You eat the head of the fish and all the wisdom goes straight to your own head." The women nod in agreement, assuming the senior Obama ate a lot of fish heads.
At that point in our visit, several Democratic primaries remained and I was straddling the fence between Clinton and Obama. It seemed cruel to have two such intriguing candidates to choose from. So I was overwhelmed by the passion of people thousands of miles away from the U.S., caring so much about an election that wasn't theirs.
Those of us from the States were grilled about Obama's chances of winning the election; there was no doubt in their minds that he would win the nomination and eventually the election. I asked if they would be this excited if another African-American were poised to win the Democratic nomination for president. Is it about race or is it about ancestry? One woman shook her head and said, "Barack (they almost always call him by his first name) is special. When he was just a teenager, he made the long journey to his father's village. He had to ride on the back of a truck. How many teenagers would do that?"
Throughout my 10-day stay in Nairobi, I would be continually reminded of the fact that many Kenyans feel a deep kinship with Barack Obama. In a Masai street market, a young man in a ripped t-shirt that said "Alabama" on it, asked in heavily-accented English, "You American? Barack he is my cousin." In Kibera, an appallingly impoverished slum, several people claimed to be Obama's cousin.
To the Kenyans I met, our Democratic candidate is their son, their cousin, their hope, their symbol of what is possible. While the U.S. may be impossibly distant for many Kenyans, their "native son" with the African name represents possibilities and an affirmation of their place in the world. Rarely does anyone mention that his Kenyan father abandoned him or that his mother is a white woman from the heartland of America. Heroes are easier to worship when they are uncomplicated.
Earlier in the lunch on Madaraka Day, an earnest young man sitting next to me had told me that his greatest wish is to visit the U.S. He said that he and his friends call the U.S. "Heaven." While I tried to give him a more realistic view of my country, he remained steadfast. His parting words were, "Soon I will find a way to see the United States." As the well-educated, politically aware women talked about the positive changes an Obama presidency would bring to the world, I was reminded that in a place called "Heaven," righteousness would prevail. And, the women said, on the day after their "son" is elected president, we will be able to hear the cheering of Kenyans all the way in America.