What Kenya means to Barack Obama

Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, his personal links to Kenya have been weaponized by the U.S.'s Right’s as a slur. But there's more to his relationship with his father's country.

Obama with family in Kenya. Image via Wikimedia.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gained an unexpected endorsement from Kenya in the summer of 2016. Malik Obama, President Obama’s Kenyan half-brother, declared his support for the Republican nominee. Trump, the proud vanguard of the Birther movement, praised the endorsement, while Malik, who had been the best man at Obama’s wedding, complained to the Kenyan press that his brother, “has neglected his African heritage and wants nothing to do with it despite campaigning on a platform that he will help transform Africa.”

Malik’s comments reflect many Africans’ discontent with Obama’s foreign policy and the disappointment that an anticipated “special relationship” between Kenya and the US did not come to pass. But Malik’s views and their eager acceptance by Trump are also relevant to American politics, playing to the substantial segment of the American Right that has made politicized gossip and racial and religious innuendo about the president’s roots – gone viral in the internet age – central to its platform of identity politics and obstructionism.

Studying the Obama and Kenya saga for more than a decade, we have observed that stories about Obama’s Kenyan heritage consistently provide clickbait for a range of parties, from liberal partisans in the US and supporters across Africa who have celebrated the Obama-Kenya connection, to the lurking conspiracy theorists who have decried Obama’s Kenyan heritage. While trying to make sense of the competing streams of Birtherist condemnation and pan-Africanist celebration will undoubtedly challenge scholars and politicos for the foreseeable future, certain trajectories and their significance to Kenyan, American, and global politics are clear.

Obama's inauguration day in Kogelo, Kenya (2009). Image credit Zoriah via Flickr.
Obama’s inauguration day in Kogelo, Kenya (2009). Image credit Zoriah via Flickr.

Obama’s Luo heritage made him a celebrated figure in Kenya well before he achieved fame at home. Early in 2004, as we were conducting research in Western Kenya not far from Kogelo, where the Obama family’s dala, or ancestral homestead, is situated, we kept fielding questions and hearing stories about that “Luo” running for the U.S. Senate. By the time Obama gave his life-changing address at the Democratic convention and then sailed to victory in the Illinois Senate race, it was evident that Kenyans were reading Obama’s ascendancy through the lens of Kenya’s patrimonial politics.

By 2006, when Senator Obama made his first official visit to Kenya, his “homecoming” was celebrated by thousands of Kenyans who lined the streets from Nairobi to his grandmother’s modest home in Nyanza. Kenyans expressed their enthusiasm for Obama, sporting commemorative t-shirts and kanga (wraps), and toasting him with the newly renamed “Senator” beer. But at the same time, Kenyans, and Luo in particular, made their patronage expectations of Obama increasingly overt. As one resident of Luoland confidently asserted, “We will get support from America, as Africans, as Kenyans and particularly as Luo.”

Image by Matt Carotenuto

Viewing Obama’s ascendancy through Western Kenya’s long histories of political marginalization and developmental disparities and through an ethnic identity constituted in migration, Luo people reached eagerly into the global, Luo diaspora to claim Obama as their “son” and patron. They were, however, quickly disappointed. In his remarks and speeches during the 2006 visit, Obama turned patrimonial politics on its head, arguing forcefully before a gathering of Kenya’s political and intellectual elite that (ethnic) patronage was a barrier to growth and both an incentive to and symptom of corruption.

Two years later, Obamamania swept the globe as Obama was elected president. For Obama’s supporters at home and abroad, his biracial background and cosmopolitan upbringing were cause for celebration, markers of a new, more tolerant and inclusive global age. Yet, the 2008 campaign had been hard-fought, with Obama’s political opponents consistently drawing on the new president’s Kenyan descent as evidence of his dangerous Otherness and lack of “belonging.” Indeed, while Trump pushed for Obama to produce his birth certificate, a proliferation of books, blogs and bluster asserted that Obama was truly a “son of the soil” of Western Kenya and thus legally ineligible to be president; Obama (and his administration) were not merely un-American, but illegitimate.

Throughout his administration and again after his 2012 victory, Obama’s relationship to Kenya has been profoundly constrained by the American Right’s consistent use of his Kenyan heritage to indict him as “foreign” and “untrustworthy.” These attacks characterized Kenya’s past inaccurately through western idioms of crisis, reading Kenya’s infamous anti-colonial rebellion (Mau Mau) as “anti-white” and contemporary politics through the ethnocentric prisms of “tribalism” and “radical Islam.” Although scholars and left-leaning pundits often casually dismissed these revisionist attacks as the overwrought ramblings of the Far Right, this discourse demonstrates the power of using corrupted versions Kenya’s past as political tools, fueling the rise of Donald Trump (whose grassroots campaign was propelled by claims over Obama’s supposed Kenyan-ness)  and stoking the colonial nostalgia of Boris Johnson, Britain’s post-Brexit Foreign Secretary.

Obama refrained from visiting Kenya until summer 2015. Even then he faced criticism from the Right – ignorant of Kenya’s status both as the United States’ chief counter-terrorism partner in Africa and as an emerging economic powerhouse on the continent –accused of squandering Americans’ tax dollars on a pointless visit “home.”

Obama Matatu. Image credit Cordelia Persen via Flickr

In the 2016 presidential race, the question of the sitting president’s “American-ness” remains a critical topic. A simple Google search of the phrase “Obama and Kenya” provides a jarring lens into the profoundly racist character of the Alt-Right’s conspiracy theories about Obama’s “Kenyan-ness,” amplified in the current electoral cycle by Trump’s tacit support. More generally, polls consistently indicate that more than 50% of Trump supporters believe Obama was born abroad. (According to an NBC News poll released in August, 72% of Republicans doubt that Obama was born in the United States.)

While Trump has recently – and rather disingenuously – endeavored to consign Birtherism to the dustbin of history, the significance of the president’s Kenyan heritage has operated as an important engine to propel the Trump campaign’s anti-immigration (and anti-Muslim) message and a space for the Clinton campaign to challenge Trumps racial bona fides.

As Obama’s presidency draws to a close, conjecture has already begun about what his connection to Kenya will ultimately yield and how his tenure as the first American president of African descent will shape U.S. politics, particularly in the arenas of foreign policy and race relations. During his 2015 visit Obama told Kenyans, “the next time I’m back here I may not be wearing a suit,” giving rise to speculation the Obama Foundation would make Kenya a priority. If the last 12 years offer any insight into the future, Obama’s legacy will be shaped by contested histories and the politics of belonging.

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