Perspectives on Democracy and Change: From Africa’s largest slum to Obama’s ancestral village home
Traveling all night by bus from Nairobi, Kenya, I arrived just before sunrise to the normally sleepy village of Kogelo. As the sun rose quickly over the equatorial horizon and the rays began illuminating the rich red soil and the forested hillside I saw preparations being laid for the forth day of celebration in the village home of Barack Obama’s grandmother. I was there to celebrate his historic rise to the Presidency and document the significance of his achievement from a Kenyan perspective.
What I discovered throughout Kenya, still healing from the political violence that rocked the nation through 2008, was the palpable desire for opportunity not constrained by tribal politics or self-serving leadership, and the peace and prosperity such leadership would bring.
“He’s done us proud. It took time., we never knew that one-day America could be led by a black president. This shows a lot of changes, and this is something that we as Kenyans now have to learn from, we have got to emulate him and change our ways of leadership… I’d like to see our leaders not be dictators… people clinging to power. If we have a full process of democracy then Africa doesn’t go bad,” Moses, a vendor in Kogelo, told me on the day of Barak.
Kogelo proved to be a stark contrast from the days I had just spent in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. In considering the revelrous celebration of Kogelo I could not help but think about Kibera and what is at stake in Kenya’s political future.
Octopizzo, the reigning hip-hop champion of the Kibera, introduced me to the slum.
As we walked pass a massive length of train-track strewn to the side of a hill I was told of how a riotous group uprooted these tracks with their bare hands in an act of mob fervor while being shot at by the police.
Deeper in the maze of makeshift homes where mud and iron met mounds of trash, kids played with abandon as I was treated to an impromptu freestyle session that filled the narrow corridors with the fluid cadence of Swahili and English rhymes . The lyrics spoke to the unconscionable acts of violence witnessed by many in this place. They spoke to the scars that a new generation will bear forever as a result of being violently jumped into tribal politics and a system of patronage that strangles democratic voice.
After the elections, Kibera was like a tinderbox set ablaze, and as I listened to first-hand accounts of the conflagration I knew then what was at stake in a country without viable democratic institutions to hold tyranny at bay.
Charles, a Kenyan reporter, told me “I’m dying to see a day we will all join up and say this is the guy we want to lead us not because he comes from my tribe but because he has what it takes to be a leader.”
In Ghana, President Obama stated that “defining oneself in opposition to someone from a different tribe has no place in the 21st century.”
Many the world over marveled at how far the U.S. had come in the election of an African-American President. In Kenya, where violence along tribal lines is a political reality, Obama represents the possibility of a sea change. As a man of different ethnicities rising to power on the merit of his actions and the boldness of his vision, Obama symbolizes a new realm of possibility.
“Barak Obama is the right mirror for our politicians”, Charles continued, “He has enshrined Democracy the world over.”
In this way Barak Obama represents a possibility hungered for by Kenyans, a chance to see a leader elected for the merit of his actions rather than his tribal identity or the money and the favors he can promise on the backs of his constituency.
Obama made it clear in Ghana that he was not keen on hand outs, but rather helping to provide a hand up to those working towards more open societies.
What I heard from Moses and many others was the appreciation they felt for the President’s work ethic and self-determination, “He is always work conscious, he wants people to work together to bring up a better nation.”
President Obama is celebrated as a symbol of change the world over. He represents the possibility inherent in collective action and hard work. To the Kenyans I spoke with, he inspired them to rise in their own possibility. Moses put it this way:
“We are going to work together and make life better for each and every one of us, we are going to change the way we live, we are to come up together strongly as brothers and sisters to unite the whole Globe, so lets work together hand in hand America, Kenya, Africa as a whole, and the Whole of the Globe.”
If we are to build and maintain truly open societies where democratic institutions flourish, I know the voices of people like Octopizzo and Moses will need to be heard.
To hear audio from the field or for updates on the release of Octopizzo’s upcoming EP: firstname.lastname@example.org or @michaeltrainer on twitter.