The Obama Enigma

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In 2008 after the election of Barack Obama, notable avant garde Americans were seemingly awed by his physical presence. Obama had the unique ability to exemplify universal traits, and everyone wanted to define him in their own image. Oprah Winfrey described meeting Obama as the most powerful experience she had encountered. Novelist, Toni Morrison described Barack as a man of our time. Actress, Halle Berry said she would pick paper cups off the ground to make his pathway clear. The most blatant description was by San Francisco SFgate columnist Mark Morford who called Obama the Lightworker and wrote this in his column;

Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.

His observations were mocked with endless parodies around his light worker pronouncement. That column further thrust Morford as the laughing stock of a nation. Meanwhile, way over here in Kenya, common folk understood what Morford meant about those ethereal qualities. Granted, Obama had more of the aura of a super cool celebrity than a politician, many Kenyans readily agreed that there was something ‘out of this world’ about Obama. A trait most people had heard of but never seen before. His qualities were way above average. A man who drew people in, and made you pay attention. Analysts said the Obama fever would pass, once the election hype died down but 8 years on the fever is just as intense. One can forgive the Kenyan enthusiasm. Obama has a living grandmother in a village in Siaya and a Kenyan family that makes him a living national treasure.

When Obama first came to prominence as a Senator for Illinois with roots in Siaya County, every media person of Kenyan descent resisted getting swept away by the euphoria and sought to maintain objectivity. Most of us had seen how Obama’s mere presence made the Queen and other world leaders swoon but there was really no way describe it…. short of gushing apologetically. Even the normally reclusive Mwai Kibaki talked of the ‘special resonance with us in Kenya’ after Obama’s election victory and promptly declared a public holiday.

Many write of this magnificence dismissively as simply his “Swoon Factor” yet we all instinctively understand the brother is just different. I treated the Obama ascension with cautious optimism. He was a pragmatic politician but political interests are murky waters to wade in. But what I always sensed was that Obama represented something larger than his political office. He stirred something deeper in my psyche. He made me question myself.

Barack Obama
Courtesy of

As any good anthropologist would, I was forced to go back to my Luo tradition to find some context for this thing I was grappling to describe. Barack Obama has what in Dholuo is a trait termed as mbii. I first heard of the term mbii as a child during holidays in my village in Gem, Siaya County. The term was used to describe certain prominent folk who had long passed on. Initially I confused mbii with charisma but it was beyond that. Mbii is more like an aura. An energy field that surrounds a person. Mbii is often mistaken for nyadhi (bravado) which is the national characteristic associated with Luos.

In Kenya, Nyadhi is earned bragging rights and expressed after an achievement. Having a Masters Degree from Harvard in the 60s was considered Nyadhi. Obama Senior was a ja nyadhi. His academic achievements accorded license to toot his own horn. Nyadhi was about touting a mark of excellence and awarded for surpassing an established superior standard. The Mbii essence we see in Obama is something beyond oratory skills, good looks, wit and charm. His brand of Mbii is manifested by sheer presence. The legends of our traditional African folklore were described by their Mbii essence. Mbii in present day has been associated with enlightened persons, super high achievers and spiritual leaders. Nelson Mandela, Lady Di, Dalai Lama, Haile Selassie, Thomas Sankara, Wangari Maathai all had Mbii. The Mbii factor is a trait worth paying attention to.

It manifests in individuals with the ability to affect populations and touch people in all corners of the globe. It is legendary and rare. This is a quality previously only celebrated in myth and folkore. The light worker quality is found in individuals of humble beginning who dedicate their lives to higher ideals of service and compassion and inspire us to seek our inner light and become better versions of ourselves.

Tribute To My Flamboyant Friends

Out in Kisumu, there was an avenue of flamboyant trees that lined the road that runs passes alongside the Hindu crematorium, the Muslim cemetery and a golf course on your way to the Kisumu airport. The mature umbrella shaped, bright flowering trees were a distinct feature of Kisumu as coconuts are to Mombasa.  I learnt they have been there since the 50s. I could not find the actual record of when they were planted but anyone who has traveled on that road to Busia will remember them as a distinct feature of the landscape. Those trees held memories.

Now they are all gone, chopped down to make way for a sparkling brand new dual carriageway. Those trees have served with such distinction. At the very least, the road contractors should have invited us to a funeral and put out a notice in the obituary section reading, “We regret to inform all concerned Kenyans who may remember the flamboyants, that they had to go”.

It is the heavy price of development. We need bigger better roads to move a growing population and environment will be destroyed for a good cause. I mourn those trees but I mourn Wangari Maathai more. In her time, the trees would not have gone down without a fight. She wouldn’t have bought the development script that easily. As she once said “There’s a general culture in this country to cut all the trees. It makes me so angry because everyone is cutting and no one is planting”. It is obvious that more of our green friends are lined up for summary execution.  The country is on the move and we can always plant ornamental trees back. It is all factored in the landscaping budget. As the rest of the world strives to green their urban spaces, Kenyans seem to have fallen in love with concrete and glass.

We need to promote development that does not destroy our environment –Wangari Maathai. Rest In Peace


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Take A Beating Like A Man.

Rodney King, an African American, a famous victim of police brutality in the US was found drowned in his pool. Mr. King was thrust into the limelight for all the wrong reasons. It was the year 1991 in Los Angeles, when a passing motorist captured explosive footage of LAPD officers, beating the hell out of a man on the ground. It became a sore point for race relations in the US and stirred an emotive national debate. Eventually the police officers involved were acquitted by an all-white jury, which triggered off the vicious L.A riots. 52 lives were lost and an estimated billion dollars worth of property destroyed.

Rodney King who became famous for all the wrong reasons

As I watched the old clip of police officers viciously assaulting King, I was struck by how common a sight that was in Kenya of the 80s through to 90s. At the height of the clamor for multi democracy, opposition rallies were always broken up with tear gas and riot police clubbing protestors senseless. It was such a regular occurrence that people went to those opposition rallies prepared. One wore running shoes, carried some water because when the cops descended it would be mayhem for everyone including the press. A beating was a standard occupational hazard of pro democracy activism.

Today we call it police brutality. In the old days it is just what you expected the police to do and all one had to do was to be in the right place at the wrong time. The police operated like zombies and when they struck, they beat people up indiscriminately. No one was above a good clobbering. The official policy was christened FFU, Fanya Fujo Uone (make trouble and you will see) and the public had a very clear understanding of whose patience one never tested. Among the dreaded corps were the Presidential Escort, the G.S.U ( General Service Unit) and overzealous Kanu youth wingers. It was this policy of equal opportunity beating that partly pushed up Rev. Timothy Njoya’s credentials as a reformist. The famous footage of his whipping outside the Parliament building and his ability to forgive his tormentors painted the picture of a man who walked the talk. He entered the reform books as a man of God who had put his limb on line for the good of many. Prof. Wangari Maathai also suffered the same fate when police crossed the line and clobbered a group of elderly women at Uhuru Park. Both incidents were widely circulated by international press and as the more prominent victims of police excesses, Rev. Njoya and Proff. Maathai unconsciously played a big part in securing the freedom to protest that commercial sex workers now enjoy.

These days our society is developing a low tolerance for sanctioned violence. Deputy Chief Justice Nancy Barasa found that the landscape has vastly changed and the seemingly minor incident where she was caught in a scuffle with a subordinate has become like an albatross around her neck. With an enlightened public, a justice system with teeth and diligent human rights activists on the prowl, times have really changed for the police force.

The underlining lesson here is that we must not forget that many of the privileges and freedoms that we enjoy came at a great price to a few. Rodney King may not have been in the league of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King but his beating would save thousands in the future from police brutality and brought about some measure of reform. Like Rodney King, our past is filled with silent heroes and heroines, accidental victims of history for whose sacrifices we have much to be thankful for.





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Of Stuffing The Humble Pie

I  caught the tail end of a special feature on Moses Wetangula, a presidential aspirant on a local channel. I was drawn to the visuals and tuned out of the dialogue. That was until the interviewer posed a question on sources of his wealth. He took a defensive position and closed with these words. “I am just a humble man”. I rolled my eyes.

Truly humble people never have to say they are humble. In these parts, this is a word used to cover for raw ambition. When a televangelist talks of a humble home expect to see an opulent mansion with a manicured garden and pool. A musician yapping on about of his humble roots would more likely to be posing next to a gleaming Range Rover. Humble is a word used by nouveau riche folk to apologize for their success.

In a country where the poor stay poor, successful people understand the magic power of the word “humble”. It is the beauty queens equivalent of “World Peace”. A phrase one uses, not because they mean it but because people expect one to.

It is obviously difficult to be humble and run for President at the same time. In a ego contest to prove that you are better than others, humility only counts after you bag the prize. Besides, the electorate has previously held a dim view of humility as a presidential quality. The record shows that in Kenya the humble candidate never got very far. In our politics nice guys finish last. You might remember David Mailu, Joe Donde, Martin Shikuku, all past presidential candidates who came flashing the humble card. The voters left them eating humble pie.

To be taken seriously as a humble contender, one has to die first. Perhaps this will be the enduring legacy of Wangari Maathai. Humility is not something one can show off. One has to embody the virtue. Since that is quality that is reserved for either the dirt poor or living saints, the rest of us only need to act humble.

On the podium clamouring for public office, one has to learn how to fake humility until they make it. Humility won’t get you places before you make it. I can tell you from experience that humility will not faze arrogant watchmen or stubborn traffic cops.  But once one starts reveling in trappings of power, humility acquires the muscle of a good manners. The presidency maybe a peacock show but the public generally expect the prosperous candidate to act humble after gaining power. On the other hand, most fear that power would send the cash strapped idealistic candidate into dizzy fits of megalomania.

Even so, humble origins are a license to flaunt wealth and live large. Emerging from humble background gives one a sense of entitlement. You know you deserve better and will do anything to prove to the world that they were wrong and you were right.  A large proportion of the flamboyant Christian evangelical figures, musicians and sports personalities in this country are drawn from humble backgrounds.

In theory politics used to be a place to voice these humble hopes. Modesty in behavior, down-to-earth qualities, was survival traits for a savvy player. These days tell a politician to come down to earth and they land a chopper in your backyard. The well to-do parade helicopters while the rest of us continue whining about rising matatu fares.

So my humble advice to our so called leaders is, to remember what the late Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir once said, “Don’t be humble, you are not that great”.