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.

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan writer, curator and editor. This blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan and African life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. Well put….Aura=Mbii

  2. Ruth Makotsi

    I relate to this Oyunga. Obama has that effect on me too. His speeches leave me wanting to better myself morally, intellectually and socially. He has that ‘je ne sais quoi’-double x-factor tor perhaps? His name will definitely go down in the annals of history as a great inspirer alongside those of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Keep writing.

  3. dennis kabutei

    The sad part about his visit to Kenya is, after sitting through all his speeches with relish – amused not only by his eloquence but by how much he makes sense – and for a moment enjoying watching the news, we are left to watch and listen to our politicians’ loathsome nonsense.

    • Nene kubo

      @Dennis Kabutei:I couldn’t have put it better.Our politicians have a loooong way to go.First things first,they should stop buying university degrees & maybe then they’d give an English speech that somewhat makes sense.

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