/ 28 August 2008

Oliech! Obama! Jelimo!

It’s Sunday afternoon in Nairobi and I head to my local pub at the Buruburu shopping centre for a drink with friends to tone down the effects of Saturday’s bingeing.

I’m wearing my new T-shirt, a gift from a colleague who’s just come back from a holiday in the United States.

As I sauntered into the club — an airy joint with large plasma TVs showing sports and cool Reggae vibes wafting from the speakers — I felt like a celebrity as all eyes trained on me. I knew what had caught their fancy as I high-fived some familiar faces.

”Obama Juu!” someone shouted, and almost in unison the crowd started chanting, ”Obama! Obama!” One guy, then a second and a third, made their way over — all to inquire where they could get a T-shirt like mine.

My Barack Obama 08 campaign shirt was causing quite a stir. The democratic candidate’s face was emblazoned on the front while an American flag fluttered in the background.

One guy chucked his wallet down, counted out R300 and handed me the notes. I had to explain to the guys that I wasn’t selling.

While the majority of blokes in the bar wanted a piece of Obama mania, a few others sniggered at me, saying I was supporting someone who wasn’t even a Kenyan.

As I was cooling down my still-groggy head with my first Tusker beer and trying to melt into the background, I got a call from my friend Oti to tell me he was on his way.

He arrived, as usual, in grand style, his booming voice announcing his entrance from a mile away.

Oti had once claimed to be related to Obama, but through such a long lineage that even George Bush might be his uncle. I gawked at him as he sat his big frame down next to me. Within a moment all attention had shifted to him. He had just stolen the thunder from my earlier dalliance with celeb-dom.

He was wearing the Harambee Stars national football team’s T-shirt, emblazoned with the name of the country’s celebrated striker, Dennis Oliech, who plies his trade in France. The white No 9 T-shirt with slim black lines running horizontally, is a scarce commodity round here.

True to his nature, Oti boasted loudly of how Oliech had ”souved” (to give someone a souvenir) him his T-shirt which he had worn in his last match in June when he scored two goals for Kenya as our national team beat Guinea.

My friend’s T-shirt was turning more heads than my Obama one, but between them they had turned every head in the room. Let me give you the lowdown on why.

After our country’s violent start to the year because of a disputed election, our problems worsened when the full effects of the mayhem fell on our poor souls somewhere around May, when food prices here also tripled because of the worldwide surge in food and energy prices. It hit so hard on our already empty pockets that there was nothing much left in our nation to be proud of.

Any hope for the salvation of our weakened patriotism was slowly fading from memory — until ”homeboy” Obama started shaking things up in the primaries. Suddenly a sense of belonging started to creep in.

Now we had a reason to be proud of being Kenyan. As a nation, we felt we had sent ”aid” to a politically impoverished America in the form of a serious dose of home-brewed genes.

We could only watch Obama as he seduced the world’s imagination from our TV sets. And that’s where the problem lay, Obama was too far away.

It was around this time that the Guinea national team, Syli National, came to town boasting stars such as Pascal Feindouno of St Etienne and Dynamo Kiev striker Ishmael Bangoura.

Our Harambee Stars, who have a reputation for always playing below expectations on the big stage, were challenged by fans who came out in droves to cheer them on. But let me tell you a secret: most fans had come to watch the classy West Africans.

We packed Nairobi’s 35 000-seat Nyayo National stadium to more than its capacity. Now this is a record since a quarter-filled stadium here is described as a full house.

Our Prime Minister, Raila Odinga (I don’t know how this guy does it, but he can really work up a crowd), who is an ardent soccer fan, arrived to loud cheers. This sparked off a patriotic streak that ran through the crowd and for a full 90minutes we roared for the Harambee Stars.

Oliech scored both goals in the 2-0 win, sending the more than 40 000 souls into a frenzy of chanting: ”Oliech! Obama! Odinga!”

With our nationalism at a record high, what was amazing was that you couldn’t buy a quality T-shirt featuring any of these heroes for love or money.

Readers wrote letters to the editor in local newspapers inquiring where to find Obama and Oliech T-shirts, but there seemed to be no answer.

Then recently, in the pre-Beijing Olympics build-up, I heard a radio request by a listener who wanted to know where she could get a Pamela Jelimo T-shirt. This was even before the 18-year-old running sensation scorched to victory in the 800m final at the Bird’s Nest stadium, bringing home gold for Kenya.

The loud cheers in the bar that greet her every appearance gave Oti and me an idea.

I believe we will be doing a national service by producing Jelimo T-shirts. It would be the hottest thing to wear to your local pub right now and I have yet to see a single one.

Munene Kilongi is a special correspondent for the McClatchy Newspaper group’s Africa Bureau in Nairobi