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Kenyans have a stake in U.S. race

Though proud of their connection to Obama, they're skeptical about America's readiness to elect a black president.

October 17, 2008|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, KENYA — A popular morning-radio personality summed up how many Kenyans are viewing the U.S. presidential race.

"There's no way," said disc jockey Maina Kageni, "the U.S. is going to elect" a black man.

Despite Sen. Barack Obama's strong lead in the polls and his huge popularity here in his father's homeland, some Kenyans can't shake a sense of doubt about whether Americans are ready to put a black man in the White House.

The quiet pessimism is rooted in Kenyans' perceptions about racism in the United States and sharpened by the nation's own flawed presidential election 10 months ago, which saw hatred among tribes come to the fore.

"I know the polls show him ahead, but I think there's still an undercurrent that will make race an issue, particularly among the older generation and conservatives," said Nairobi fitness trainer Danson Onegi, 26. "Do you really think he can win?"

Kenyan newspapers and television stations have fueled the doubts, focusing coverage on alleged assassination threats against Obama and recent taunts shouted from the crowd at rallies for Republican nominee Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

The front-page headline of one of Kenya's leading daily newspapers last week blared, "Shooting and threats as Obama widens gap." The article said "racist abuse" was on the rise as Obama moved ahead in the polls, referring to the "kill him" cry heard at a recent Palin rally and the apparently racially motivated shooting in Britain of a black man who was wearing an Obama T-shirt.

However, Onegi and others said they were hoping the Nov. 4 election would prove their doubts wrong.

Excitement about the U.S. campaign is building throughout this East African nation. A brewery recently reintroduced "Senator" beer, nicknamed "Obama," which first was produced after his 2004 election.

And at the Kenya National Theater, rehearsals are wrapping up for "Obama -- The Musical," an original work set to open next month.

"I want to unite the country behind Obama's story," said playwright and director George Orido. The eclectic, high-energy production includes show-stoppers such as "Obama is not Osama" and "Ode to the Son," in which a young Obama searches for his racial identity in a drug den before finding salvation in God.

Meanwhile, international news media are swarming to western Kenya, where Obama's step-grandmother, half-siblings and various other relatives will gather to await the election results. Obama's father, who died in 1982, left Obama's American mother in the 1960s, when Obama was a toddler. They met only one other time, when Obama was 10.

Though Obama didn't make his first visit to Kenya until he was a young adult, many Kenyans say they feel a strong national pride in his success. Some said his election would serve as a measure of vindication for decades of Western oppression and European colonialism.

"Whites [who said they would] never let an African rule them will be proved wrong," said Dan Kilah, 25, a recent college graduate who likened Obama to Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Frederick Okatcha, a psychology professor at Kenyatta University, said Obama's presidential bid is stirring strong emotions in Kenya.

"It's a psychological feeling that one of our descendants has made it to the highest office in the world," Okatcha said. "So it's not just Obama or American Democrats who might win. Kenyans feel they will have won, too."

Yet doubts about the American electorate, and possible violence, abound here.

Fitness trainer John Kibet, 32, expressed concern that Obama would face a higher risk of assassination by white supremacists. "Even if he wins, I worry someone is just going to pop him," Kibet said.

Thanks to the Internet, some Kenyans are even mindful of the lessons many continue to draw from former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's 1982 gubernatorial bid in California. Despite leading in many polls, Bradley lost the election, and pollsters concluded that many respondents had concealed their reservations about voting for an African-American.

"There's this thing called 'the Bradley effect' that we are all very afraid of," said Moses Otieno, 23, a choreographer.

Okatcha, who knew Obama's father when both were studying in the United States, said that he too was not yet betting on him winning.

As a foreign exchange student in the 1960s, he said, he escaped the discrimination experienced by fellow African-American students. But two years ago, during a trip to Louisiana, Okatcha said, he encountered racism for the first time when an upscale bar refused to serve him.

"And this was in 2006," he said. "So it shows we just have to wait and see what happens."

Some of the cynicism appears rooted in Kenya's disputed Dec. 27 presidential poll, which unleashed deep-seated tribal hatreds and sparked riots that left more than 1,000 people dead.

"Racism in the U.S. is like tribalism here, though I don't think American racism is as bad as tribalism here," Okatcha said.

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