A tribal take on Obama and Kenya

Saturday February 11 2017

Cartoon about Obama in Kenya by Celeste Wamiru.

Cartoon about Obama in Kenya by Celeste Wamiru. PHOTO | COURTESY 

By Dana April Seidenberg

Two American academics are riding the crest of an Obamamania wave.

With serious narratives as well as puff pieces galore pouring off the presses on this cool, charismatic African-American intellectual’s eight-year tenure in the White House, it was only a matter of time before an “Obama and Kenya” was scripted.

The book, titled Obama and Kenya; Contested Histories and the Politics of Belonging, is by Matthew Carotenuto and Katherine Luongo (2016).

Despite a general assessment of Obama’s legacy for both Kenya and the US being premature, compelling insights into mutually inclusive issues lying un-or-under-investigated by East Africans themselves can be contributed by foreign scholars.

On the Obama side, with only three memoirs and no interviews, the equation imbalance necessitated a wide-angle lens on the Kenyan state. The authors’ dominant strategy is “constructing a history of Kenya through the story of an American president’s paternal heritage…”

The challenge these two historians confront is ethnicity/identity politics/tribalism refracted through an American lens of “contested histories” and “the politics of belonging.”

Past episodes in African history projected as flashbacks give the work a seductive, documentary film quality. Carotenuto and Luongo begin with a historiographical overview of antiquated Eurocentric myths about the continent as a whole.

In a process Chinese-American scholar of postcolonial literature Pheng Cheah calls “unworlding,” they destroy old Eurocentric assumptions that once dominated the discipline.

From pseudo-scientific deductions of Social Darwinism to Hugh Trevor- Roper’s damning indictment of African history as non-history, to the hilariously smug White Man’s Country to Kenyan settler-farmer Karen Blixen and her patronising memoir, the authors’ apparent aim is to kick every dead horse in the stable of yesteryear’s panoply of African Studies clichés and conceits. As these “contested histories” are neither still contested nor are germane to their stated aims, their inclusion is a mystery.

Ignoring the entirety of Kenya, the authors zoom in on South Nyanza, to a “tribal” landscape leading to the land of “Luoness” and Obama’s “ancestral home” at K’Ogello, anglicised here to Kogelo.

Why? Except for his immediate family, Obama appears detached from South Nyanza, having no special engagement with Kenya or its Jaluo politicians on their many visits to the US during Obama’s first term. This despite the authors admitting that “Obama himself did not identify as Kenyan or Luo.”

Kenyan issues are filtered through the unedited opinions of South Nyanza Jaluo; the authors apparently seeing little necessity (as reflected in interviewees’ names) to gain the views of other Kenyans. Throughout this work, the Luo are seen as victims of a vengeful state.

This despite the fact that after Independence in l963 when Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a Luo, served as vice-president under Jomo Kenyatta as Kenya’s first elected president.

Reflecting on the several post-Independence assassinations of politicians, the authors, through an informant, report: “If it was not for Jaramogi, the Luos would have been finished.” A Rwandan-style genocide in Kenya?

Similarly, the former US president’s father, Barrack Obama Sr, had suffered at Kenya’s Ministry of Finance because of “the difficulties of being a Luo ‘in the wilderness.’”

Left out were the inconvenient facts of political assassinations of prominent politicians who were not Luo, and Obama Sr’s own toxic behaviour. A reckless alcohol addiction contributing to an erratic work schedule led to his dismissal at the ministry; support for his appointment to the ministry from Mwai Kibaki, notwithstanding.

After skewering foreign journalists such as New York Times reporter, Jeffrey Gettleman for his “simplistic, ahistorical” analysis of Kenya’s tortured election cycles — the 2007-8 Kenya elections that led to 1,300 dead and thousands displaced — their own thought-world on these events is laid out.

In airing only the ODM-Luo version of them, and glossing over several key post-election issues, where is accountability? In two Americans echoing ethnic bias as the objective standard precept for illuminating recent Kenyan history, the authors could be accused of creating their own series of unfounded Eurocentric assumptions.

“Luoness” a big non-issue

Foreign fascination with African “tribes” and “tribalism” continues even as ordinary Kenyans (except power-hungry political aspirants needing quick political fixes), hunger for issue-based politics and analyses. As a small facet of a larger picture, the politics of ethnicity may nuance issues but can never be considered the central explanation.

In retreating again into the narrow confines of ethnicity/identity politics beloved of the 40-against-one, our-turn-to-eat crowd, the authors give validity to a mindset leading to a flatness of vision needing constant revision to suit the immediate conditions of the day.

Absent from the bibliography is Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (l983), whose clarity of vision on group-think orthodoxy (often termed mass psychosis) is a template for framing any future studies on inter-ethnic dynamics in Kenya and elsewhere.