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What can Obama do for us?

Nov 14, 2004 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Kenya appears to be in the throes of “Obama Fever”. One of “our sons” has just become a senator for the state of Illinois in the USA, and the news seems to have triggered the onset of a strange affliction.

The malady first cropped up in a small group of family members, but has rapidly spread across Nyanza province and is now penetrating the country at large. This mysterious ailment has many strange symptoms. Firstly, the sufferer feels waves of irrational and uncontrollable joy. This is soon followed by hallucinations of a magnificent future filled with wondrous things like large homes, cars, schools, clinics, and power lines in places that have never seen the like. There then appears a medically irrepressible desire to rename schools, small children and farm animals “Obama”. Grown men in the grip of the fever, particularly those living close to large bodies of water, appear to need large quantities of a beer named “Senator”, which is widely believed to have a palliative effect. Doctors believe that once the fever has run its course, the victims are likely to suffer from an acute feeling of being let down, which may lead to prolonged depression.

What is it with us Kenyans? One can understand and forgive the hopes of an impoverished grandmother, but why are so many educated and supposedly rational Kenyans placing such ridiculous hopes in an election victory many thousands of miles away from our shores? We have heard that Senator Obama will now electrify rural Siaya. That he will build roads and schools. That he will build an expansive home for his rural relatives. That he will make a majestic landing in a helicopter, presumably scattering dollar notes wherever he goes.

And the hopes are painted on a bigger canvas, too. We apparently now have a “voice” in American government, someone who understands our problems and can make our needs known; someone who can direct foreign aid our way; someone who can propel Kenya to its rightful place on the world stage. As happened with our Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai before him, Kenyan politicians are falling over themselves to be associated with the young Chicago senator.

Oh dear. This would be funny if it wasn’t so very painful. All of it has been reported by the world media, and lays bare two of the biggest problems bedevilling this blighted land of ours.

The first is our seemingly endless ability to beg. Where in our history did we go wrong? When did a vibrant people become a nation of supplicants? Do we truly have no shame? Too many of us believe that someone “up there” or “out there” owes us a living. That life is a process of pleading for assistance. That we have unique problems, and that only aid from others can sort us out.

The second is our entrenched belief in our own brand of politics. We appear to think that politics is about sending “one of our own” to high office. That once our sons are in office, they will divert state resources in our direction. This is our model of development – getting our community’s nose into the feeding trough. We also believe that, in addition to catering for their families, clans, districts, constituencies, provinces and tribes, our political winners will enrich themselves in remarkable fashion. Sadly, all our experience confirms this model. Development does indeed come to the districts from which ministers and presidents emerge; tribes do get access to the lucre through favoured sons; and the sons themselves do have a mysterious way in which they become millionaires in a matter of months.

Enough, Kenyans. It’s time to get angry! We are stuck in a mindset that could keep us impoverished for generations to come. If we carry on like this, someone will be writing an article similar to this one in 30 years’ time; nothing will have changed. Our views on the nature of responsibility, and on the nature of leadership, are crippling us. As this week’s allegations at KWS suggest, it is indeed possible for ministers to take truckloads of constituents to state corporations and get them jobs. This keeps both the workers and the corporations frozen in a perpetual state of low productivity. It does no one any good whatsoever.

Let’s face up to one thing: no one, anywhere, owes us a living. We are entitled to nothing when we arrive on this planet – except what we can earn for ourselves through hard work, application and determination. The state, the tribe, the corporation owe you nothing. Not even your father should be compelled to support you. Everything has to be earned. The failure to recognise this basic fact of life has cost us generations of development. For we’re still waiting, you see, for the messiah to arrive and fill our pockets with gold. Having never found one within our borders, we are now reduced to searching overseas.

If there’s one thing Senator Barack Obama can do for us, it is to teach us this lesson. Kenyans hope that the young leader from America will visit us soon. Let him do this for us: give us a thorough “barracking”. Let him visit his home village and accept all the congratulations, as a good son should. Let him do something for his grandmother: she is, after all, old and in need of succour. But let him not give a single rusted dime to any other character he comes across. No handouts, no promises, no parties, no booze. Then let us see how many Kenyans are still willing to sing his praises.

When he is feted by the president and all his ministers, as undoubtedly he will be, let him say a few simple things. Let him talk about the virtues of self-help and personal responsibility. Let him explain how he works for all Americans – not just those who seek to “own” him. Let him teach the lessons from his own lifetime: how he ended up effectively fatherless after his (Kenyan) dad came back home without him and his mother, and how he lived with a stepfather in Indonesia for years; how he did not let any of that deter him in life; how he hauled himself up by his own bootstraps and made it to university and then to a career in law and politics; how he has not needed the favours or patronage of anyone to get to where he now is.

Obama has said that his priority is entirely local: being a good senator for the people of Illinois. He has said that you can never get anywhere unless you put some good ideas forward. In other words, he knows what he needs to do to succeed as a leader: serve his people; and think very hard about the issues that face them. Let him say that here, to the face of people who seem to succeed by doing neither.

Other than that, he owes us nothing and should do nothing for us. We do not need his aid or his influence; it will only weaken us further. We need only ourselves.

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