Obama Incorporated:Unraveling Tribe and Ethnicity in Kenya

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Matthew Carotenuto

Veering off the main highway from Kisumu, the path to Kogelo winds inland from the rocky shores of Lake Victoria. It is a typical hot and humid day in Kenya’s Siaya County, and passing the small farms and trading centers to Barack Obama’s paternal home village the road is deceptively quick and smooth. Ten years ago, the same journey would have taken most of the day to navigate the dirt and deeply rutted trail, long ignored in government development schemes. However, presidential roots seem to fill potholes quite well, even if the president is from a nation nearly 12,000 kilometers away.

Taking twenty two university students to Kogelo this past March as part of the St. Lawrence Kenya Program, we encountered evidence of Obama inspired development. Freshly tarmacked roads, rural water and electricity projects, and investments in Obama inspired heritage tourism were all part of clear efforts to claim an American president as Kenyan, and more importantly a member of the Luo community.

For students of American politics, many in the western press have long used Obama’s paternal Kenyan roots to paint simplistic narratives of Kenyan history as a story of violence and endemic “tribalism.” However, talking with students at Senator Barack Obama Secondary school and discussing development concern’s at the local “White House Restaurant,” I was vividly reminded how local narratives about ethnicity and belonging are not static, insular conversations, but in constant conversation with global historical issues.

 

During our short visit to Kogelo my students chuckled at the life size sculpture of Barack Obama and smirked at hotel rooms named Michelle, Sasha and Malia. Yet, witnessing the complex ways Kenyans’ weave an American politician into regional Kenyan history took me back to the lessons which challenged my own notions of ethnicity and the politics of belonging. From the pejorative language of “tribe” to the social construction of ethnicity, key books and lessons changed my popular, simplistic view of ethnicity in Africa as some ancient primordial identity more than two decades ago.

In July of 1994, I took my first trip to East Africa and encountered ethnicity in Kenya through the experiences and mentality of a naïve American teenager. The dominant story emanating from the region at the time was one of “tribalism.” Used as the popular explanatory root of the Rwanda Genocide, I too bought into simplistic press narratives that ancient primordial hatred between Hutu and Tutsi was the cause of the death or displacement of nearly 40% of Rwanda’s population in a mere 100 days.

It was not until my years as an undergraduate student encountering the work of Alison Des Forges and Catherine Newbury, did I understand that ethnicity and political violence in Rwanda was part of a complex historical process with both local and global influences to blame. Reading the emerging scholarship of the Rwanda Genocide in the late 1990s, challenged me to think beyond inherent ideas about “tribe” and view ethnicity as an instrumental identity which could be politically manipulated, change dramatically over time, and even emerge from the “invented traditions” of the colonial past.

My professors taught me how most African languages had no indigenous words for “ethnic group” and that “tribe” was an imported identity, which had evolved straight out of 19th century scientific racism as the politically correct alternative to the word “savage.” I took these lessons back to Kenya with me as a study abroad student and began a long connection to the history of western Kenya and the Luo community.

At the culmination of the spring semester of 1998, I spent a month conducting an oral history project among Luo-speaking communities along the shores of Lake Victoria. Regaled with stories of “Luo heroes” and regional political marginalization, my hosts often talked of being “Luo” as a monolithic and intrinsic political identity. Given my past encounters with Rwandan history, local ideas about a primordial “tribal” identity seemed distant and disconnected from the broader scholarly arguments I had encountered about contemporary Africa. These contrasting experiences eventually led me to graduate school with the goal of examining the complex historical roots of Luo identity.

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-19-03-58As a first year graduate student, Leroy Vail’s edited volume The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa and J.D.Y. Peel’s Christian Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba, fundamentally changed the way I viewed ethnicity in Africa. They argued that identities could not simply be “invented” by the top down divide and rule policies of European colonial rule. It was Africans themselves who used the pejorative colonial language of “tribe” to actively cultivate identities based loosely on shared linguistic and cultural traits.

In Kenya new ethnic markers such as Luhya, Kalenjin and Mijikenda emerged for the first time during the colonial period. Often championed by mission educated elites, ethnicity was imagined as both a social and political identity which merged local traditions with the emerging influence of Christianity and other colonial imports. These new identities were not simply an adoption of imported ideas but part of complex debates about modernity and ways to shape an emerging concept of ethnic “citizenship.”

Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale’s Unhappy Valley was instrumental in helping to wade through the complex ways African communities debated the boundaries of ethnicity. In their analysis of Kenya’s particularly violent struggle with colonial rule, I discovered how public and press obsession with outward displays of ethnicity in Africa as “political tribalism” often overshadowed the important, internal cultural debates Lonsdale describes poignantly as “moral ethnicity.”

Balancing the moral and political in my own research let me finally see the landscape of western Kenya as Cohen and Odhiambo’s seminal work Siaya described it. Siaya to them was not just an administrative district dominated by Luo-speakers, but one where the many ideas about being “Luo” were hotly debated. From the politics of land and migration to gendered interpretations of familial and clan relationships, I realized ethnicity could not be reduced to mere stories of colonial resistance or contemporary electoral politics.

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Congratulations Barack Obama: Love and Peace has been granted to us by god” This leso (wrap) has been sold across East Africa since 2008 U.S. election. Copyright of Emma Burr.

After over a decade of grappling with the complex roots of ethnicity in Kenya, I first heard the name Obama uttered in western Kenya. I did not realize until much later that the occasional questions I got about “that boy from Chicago” during dissertation research, were the roots of what would grow into full-fledged “Obamamania.”

In the U.S., politicized tales of the “son of a goat herder from Kenya” were spun by both Democrat and Republican. In Kenya, “Obamamania” inspired historical entrepreneurs to fashion the local story of a U.S. President with Kenyan roots, into a tale of “Luo” political ownership. From local politicians claiming blood relations, to the commemorative naming of schools and new born children, Kenyans shared a similar political trait with their right wing American counterparts. Both aimed to retell the Obama story through a Kenyan birth.

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Obama Plaza in Kitale. Copyright of the author.

Seen through the influential texts which taught me to view ethnicity as a malleable social and political identity, the story of Obama and Kenya is part of a long history of Ethnic Patriotism, where historical narratives are often employed as political origin myths. The Obama and Kenya story is also part of the corporate production of identity in Africa, Ethnicity Inc., which extends from the realm of tourism to popular culture, religion and the ballot box. Consequently, on the eve of Obama’s historical presidential visit to Kenya in 2015, one of the hottest selling commodities for shoppers in the regional Luo dominated city of Kisumu were Obama inspired paraphernalia reading “Abiro Dala” (I am coming home).

For residents of Kogelo, the cosmetic boom in local development since 2008 has been a welcome change in the Obama era, even if the president’s own connection to his Kenyan dala remains more personal than professional. By 2016, students at Barack Obama Secondary School were still responding to local myths about inevitable scholarships that must be emanating straight from the White House and how Government plans for an Obama inspired tourist circuit would change local fortunes.

These grand aspirations have long outpaced actually change on the ground. However when talking to Luo communities in the region one thing is clear, Obama has been weaved into a local historical narrative and provides a key example of how the boundaries of ethnicity are a constantly shifting and historically contested debate.

Matt Carotenuto is Associate Professor of History and Coordinator of African Studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton NY. His published work examines the ways Kenyan identities are imagined within the context of colonial violence, postcolonial politics and indigenous sport. He also works extensively with St. Lawrence’s longstanding study abroad program in Kenya. With Katherine Luongo he is the author of Obama and Kenya: Contested Histories and the Politics of Belonging in Kenya.

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The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Zoriah. 

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