Obama’s visit tells of a society in need of emancipation

Liberating minds _ Angela Davis
Every month, the watchman of the building I live in asks me to lend him 1,000 or 2,000 Kshs, with the promise to pay me back at the end of the month. He rarely pays me back on time, because things always come up. Although he watches over property worth several hundred million Kshs, his earnings are barely enough to see him through the month.

This man walks three hours every morning to get to work and back home every evening. He works 12 hours a day, without a lunch break, and yet he cannot afford to pay 40 Kshs. for his daily transport. This is despite the fact that he supplements his income by washing the cars of the residents of the building, alongside other manual work that is given to him.

Even with all these efforts, he still owes me 1,000 Kshs. from last year, and he has explained to me that he is paying a loan, which makes it even more difficult to make ends meet. He is highly in debt, just to survive. On top of that, he recently got a wife, so things are probably worse, with an extra mouth to feed.

Now that he has a wife, there is a possibility that he will be getting children in the future. I don’t need to investigate to confirm that the chances of his children having the same kind of education, healthcare and nutrition as the children occupying the houses he mans are close to, if not zero. Miracles may happen, but I foresee a high probability that his children will be in the same situation he is in 20 years down the line.

Sometimes I overhear the conversations between the watchmen and the domestic workers, and I get a sense that they are well aware of the structural inequalities in this country. Talking and joking are their ways of dealing with the harsh realities of life. They talk about the challenges of being on the tail end of the inequality divide. They joke about how they can only afford certain luxuries in their dreams.

The luxuries they joke about are nothing luxurious by middle class standards – sometimes it is just the need for a decent lunch, the dream to take their children to university, or to take public transport to work and back home. For the domestic workers, they wish they could see their children daily, spend more time with them, and like their employers, receive their children when they come back from school.

These kind of inequalities glare at us every day in the places that we live, our places of work and just about every public and private space. Any Kenyan will tell you that the fruits of independence are only enjoyed by a few; that where you are born, and who you are born to determines your chances in life and the kind of opportunities that life will present you with.

In their conversations, the watchmen and domestic workers correctly correlate their social and economic challenges to corruption, nepotism, cronyism and tribalism. They know that without these social ills, their lives would be somewhat, if not significantly different.

Yet when Obama talked about inequalities, tribalism and corruption in Kenya, we spent the entire day quoting different sections of his speech through tweets, re-tweets, and Facebook posts that were liked, commented on and shared widely. We marvelled at Obama’s genius, his wisdom, and spoke at length about how inspired we were, never mind that any ordinary Kenya would have told you the exact same thing. We celebrated these obvious statements, as if they were the words of the prophet, foretelling a future that we don’t know of.

I have found myself trying to make sense of the response of Kenyans to Obama’s visit, and more specifically, his speech. I have found myself wondering whether the over-celebration of these obvious statements could be symptoms of a repressed society. Were we celebrating because Obama said what many of us could not say for fear of being branded traitors or unpatriotic?

Could the ‘Obama-mania’ that we witnessed, and the over-enthusiastic cheering of obvious statements be signs of a nation clinging to the hope of much needed salvation? Could these be signs of a society that is in self-doubt? Could the hope we vested in Obama be an indication of low confidence to emancipate ourselves from the problems that we often articulate so well, even across socio-economic divide?

As Africans, we have struggled to emancipate ourselves from the indignity of domination by foreign and colonial rule. Even after attaining independence, Africans have vehemently objected to be shaped by dominant narratives of the West, about Africa. This is a journey that we continue to pursue spiritedly.

However, we cannot succeed in the journey to emancipation if we continue to cling to the West for affirmation and legitimization. When we fail to believe ourselves until a foreigner ‘diagnoses’ our problem and speaks on our behalf. We must rise above the need for affirmation by the foreign, and believe that we are holders of knowledge about ourselves. We must believe that the power to chart a new kind of Africa lies with us, and not the West.

Bob Marley - Emancipation

9 thoughts on “Obama’s visit tells of a society in need of emancipation

  1. I have to agree with this.
    Africans should start writing their own narratives. If its wrong we need to say its wrong without fear. Maybe then we will stop living in the shadow of the West


    1. Thanks for the comment Andanje. Sometimes I think we are not even conscious of how colonised we are in our minds. Which is a great tragedy to think that you are free, but you are not. We must work towards raising our consciousness, until our efforts bear fruit.


  2. You took the words right out of my mouth. As a teenager living in the upper class, it is quite hard to hear the stories of the domestic workers in our area as compared to those of our own.

    It’s just as sad that we needed someone to come from a foreign country to point out these issues rather than point them out ourselves and try to solve them.


  3. Wow. So insightful. You must be the only one who viewed POTUS’ visit from that angle. Very refreshing. This should hav made it to the opinion pieces in the dailies


    1. Thank you Sharon for reading and for the complement. There is so much that needs to be critiqued about the Obama visit.

      This includes the fact that America is so unequal, despite it’s level of prosperity. A country that has enough to sustain three Americas, yet some of its people are dirt poor. Yet Obama was lecturing us about inequality as if America is any better. Or lecturing us about ethnic politics as if black people in the US are not dying daily due to police brutality and poverty, in the world’s most prosperous country. I think we too could have a thing or two to tell him about how America should treat its citizens.

      It should not have been a lecture, but a dialogue between the two nations on how they can treat their citizens better, because both Kenya and the US have failed their people.

      I’ve seen a couple of other critical pieces about Obama’s visit, they just never made it to the mainstream media, such as this one, by Wandia Njoya http://www.wandianjoya.com/blog/obamas-ges-a-not-so-new-beginning

      or this one by Mwandawiro Mghanga, which I love, because it is originally written in Swahili (see the section below the translated one). http://jukwaa.proboards.com/thread/9385/translation-mwandawiros-farewell-obama#ixzz3iQYi7400


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