Down with Obama (up with Obama)

This morning, facing too many deadlines, I found my brain blocked. I have been reading all three fat Mandela books, trying to find something to say for a commissioned article. In the midst of my writer’s block I have been searching for a high by following the Obama campaign on the internet and ignoring our own political frenzy here in Kenya, for this time it has no grace.

Every Luo, it seems, believes Raila Odinga and his gang are the best political team in the history of the universe, created specifically to solve all the problems we have ever had; every Gikuyu, it seems, believes Mwai Kibaki sups with God and receives development advice from him, has never made a mistake, or drank a beer, or had contempt for the poor.

Kenya has been taken hostage by a political class that has no personal ethnic issues within itself (its members all own the same things, and have even started marrying each other in tony joints such as the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden and a new “manor” that designs ersatz English aristocratic weddings). 

To fund all this they divide and rule us. Five years ago we were all cynical about the political establishment, and all sought to discipline it by voting on issues, by insisting on a new Constitution, by making it clear we wanted national coalitions to counter the wink-wink politics of ethnic chiefs, and kitchen cabinets, and little envelopes handed over to village thugs as a sort of development policy.

In a sense, Kenyans have been at war with the few nationalist political families since the 1990s. The war is over. They won. It turns out that in our heart of hearts we prefer charity from our immensely wealthy leaders rather than development through our hard-earned tax money. They have told us: it is me or the ethnic beasts from across the valley.

In January we will feel foolish, and I have decided to take a holiday this month while people are voting, and to talk politics again when every-one is feeling a bit shamefaced and stupid after a season of profound xenophobia. I am just grateful that, despite all the talk, Kenyans have a knee-jerk fear of sustained violence, and this has rescued us from our periodic jingoistic outbursts.

So, it was in this mood that I absconded my deadline this morning, and headed off to the mall to buy a new espresso machine. Surely, I told myself, it is the quality of my coffee that is causing all this head funk, and not the general drop in Kenya’s national intelligence, as educated people tell me that Raila is using a very powerful witch doctor in KwaZulu-Natal.

Meanwhile in America, another sort of wink-wink game seems to be happening with the Obama campaign. For the longest time, many African-Americans were saying they would vote for Hillary Clinton. Most of them who appeared on one website or another talked about Obama’s “relative blackness” and Bill Clinton’s “blackerness”.

A few months ago, in the middle of all this officio-politico analysis talk, one black woman I saw on television, asked about her views, replied that she supports Hillary Clinton because she has experience and her husband Bill is black, and she is a woman and the usual spiel. What about Obama, she was asked—and for a moment the mask slipped: “They gown kill him! They gown kill Barack.”

Meanwhile, New York Times liberals cough and splatter and say things South Africans will remember from the early 1990s: we like Barack, but America Is Not Ready For A Black President. Like the liberal opinion-makers in 1990s South Africa, the third person is being used a lot, and they are finding to their great surprise that practical white folk in the Midwest have no real problem with Barack.

For those people who use the words “standards” and “experience” and for whom Hillary has “experience”, the hidden assumption is that Harvard-educated, Google-smart Obama is some kind of callow affirmative action kid. The only black person they can accept as president is a Tiger Woods: a nearly superhuman guy who tears down every living record and displays no flaws. A Nelson Mandela perhaps, who spends 27 years in jail, and proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he betrays no bitterness and is still cute, functional, smart, happy and statesmanlike.

Obama is starting to show that even beaten and bloody he will be a little supernaturally smart, poised, charismatic and gracious, bringing about a strange reversal: people are starting to reward themselves for making such a brave choice and enthusing about him and the “Obama magic”.

And black people, who will all vote for Obama, whatever the polls say, pretend not to care about the process, so they don’t jinx the whole thing.

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