Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


In Kenya, Obama Enjoys Enthusiastic Support


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.



And I'm Robert Siegel.

Kenya was nearly derailed by its recent election. And now, Kenyans are enthusiastically watching the presidential race in the U.S. Democrat Barack Obama's father came from Kenya, and Obama still has family there. A lot of Kenyans are rooting for him.

As NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports, people said that backing Obama requires them to understand American-style politics.

GWEN THOMPKINS: On April Fool's Day, a nationally distributed newspaper in Kenya ran a front-page story saying that Illinois Senator Barack Obama was in the country for a surprise visit.

This was an exclusive. Obama was to make a speech in downtown Nairobi, then head to his ancestral homeland near Lake Victoria. Kenya's fragile phone lines heated up. What? When? Where? Why didn't anybody call me, one American reporter spluttered? My paper is going to want something about this.


Did I mention it was April Fools Day? Angry readers struck back, calling the paper to complain. Kenyans have high expectations for their favorite son and they don't want to be disappointed.

Dr. MUTUMA RUTEERE (Dean, Kenya Human Rights Institute): Overall, there's been a lot of excitement in Kenya over the possibility of Obama becoming president, you know? And, you know, as much as I think is the way the same way the Irish were excited over John F. Kennedy.

THOMPKINS: Mutuma Ruteere is the dean of the Kenyan Human Rights Institute. Ruteere spent four years at the University of Nebraska, earning a Ph.D. in political science. If he had to vote, he'd go with Obama '08.

Dr. RUTEERE: There's a sense in which Bill Clinton was, you know, when you focus on. Yes. This is a great politician. I think there's a sense in which reading Obama's speech, he's a - this is a great man. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

THOMPKINS: After a stormy election period that left more than a thousand Kenyans dead and hundreds of thousands more displaced and despondent, people here are soaking up the race for the Democratic nomination like biscuits on gravy.

In Nairobi, a taxi driver will tell you that superdelegates are likely to decide the Democratic nomination, so will the telephone repair man, and the lady who sells hot corn cobs on the street.

Dr. PETER WANYANDE (Professor, Political Science, University of Nairobi): There's a lot of talk about it. You get the impression that people are very impressed.

THOMPKINS: Peter Wanyande teaches political science at the University of Nairobi. He got his Ph.D. at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Like Obama, Wanyande's ancestors are from the Luo tribe. But Wanyande contends that he never imagined that a Luo or any black man could come this close to winning the White House.

Dr. WANYANDE: People believe, actually, in this part of the world, that Americans are generally racist. And so, people ask, has America changed?

THOMPKINS: Senator Obama's speech on race relations is almost required reading in Kenya. In interview after interview, people quoted from it. And when they said we, it was hard to tell whether they were speaking for African-Americans or Kenyans. One man said out of the blue we cannot wash this away, not this time.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: They say no language can celebrate a man like the Luo language. But Jamaican singer Cocoa Tea has a tribute to Obama that's climbing the Kenyan charts.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COCOA TEA (Singer): (Singing) Hillary Clinton. Obama. And he is not John McCain. He is not Mary(ph). And I know he's not John Wayne.

THOMPKINS: There's a gray Mercedes in town with a rare Obama '08 sticker on the back, and here's the twist: the driver is called Osodo(ph). Hillary Osodo.

Mr. HILLARY OSODO (Driver): I was named Hillary when I was an infant. Yes, I grew up knowing that I was Hillary. So, I believe, I should not just support Hillary Clinton because she's called Hillary.

THOMPKINS: But why not Hillary?

Mr. OSODO: So many people would say they would never elect a woman for president. There's this popular thing that (Speaking in foreign language).

THOMPKINS: And that means?

Mr. OSODO: That means a woman's life is in the kitchen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: But Osodo says a woman could be president of Kenya in 10 to 20 years. Orie Rogo Manduli says it will be sooner than that.

She ran for parliament last year and like many other female candidates here, she was physically beaten by people who wanted her out of the race. Manduli says she was in the hospital for 20 days and lost.

Ms. ORIE ROGO MANDULI: All the women candidates were used, thrashed, smashed. You're called prostitutes, you know, called names that are unprintable.

THOMPKINS: In the gathering darkness of the evening, Manduli raised a glass of red wine and made a toast to women. But that being said, she has bad news for Senator Clinton.

Ms. MANDULI: I adore Hillary, but unfortunately for Hillary, that out of the woodwork came a brilliant man in the name of Barack Obama.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

THOMPKINS: But ask some Kenyans why Obama would be good for Kenya, and that's when you see the need for a basic civics class. In Western Kenya, just outside the regional capital of Kisumu, farmer Joshua Alar(ph) is expecting President Obama to fix his roads and improve the electricity near his house.

Mr. JOSHUA ALAR (Farmer, Kenya): (Through translator) We believe that Obama will also work with our government. Through him, we can get a financial assistance.

THOMPKINS: People here are partial. Obama's grandmother lives just down the road. That's behind Senator Obama Secondary School. The neighbors want Obama as president to somehow make their lives a little easier.

Mr. SAYID OBAMA(ph) (Barack Obama's Uncle): The majority of them don't understand. There are people who think maybe Obama is meant to become our next president, our next member of parliament.

THOMPKINS: That's Sayid Obama, Barack's uncle. He works at an alcohol distilling plant in Kisumu.

Mr. OBAMA: He's an American politician and if elected, he's going to be answerable to the American people.

THOMPKINS: But Kenyans are hoping that Obama won't forget them.

Mr. OYUNGA PALA (Editor, "Adam"): Obama is like one of those courageous dreams you might have.

THOMPKINS: Oyunga Pala also comes from Western Kenya. He is the editor of the country;s hottest men's magazine called "Adam." Pala says the senator from Illinois has already proved to Kenyans that they can do what they want in this world, maybe even fix their own divided country.

Mr. PALA: If he does do it, it'll be amazing. It's like a World Cup, man. You know, your nation won the World Cup, wow. How can he not celebrate?

THOMPKINS: At the very least, the Democrats have given people here something hopeful to talk about. Regardless of the finish in the U.S., it's a start for Kenya.

THOMPKINS: Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.