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Nyang'oma to Chicago: expectations of largesse span eight thousand miles, two cultures and two governments


The dry rankings of Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index do not do justice to the palatial scale of individual graft by the Big Man, tolerated so long as the "haves" -- the tribe, clans and families of the big man -- shared the wealth in progressively smaller measure until the "have nots" lived in squalor under the eye of the police and security forces.

No "poll of polls, reflecting the perceptions of business people and country analysts, both resident and non-resident" can have operational meaning until one understands the sway of the likes of Kenya's Daniel arap Moi and Zaire's (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Mobutu Sese Seko and their patronage systems that were seen as a duty of the governor and a right due to the governed. Those that did not fulfill their duties were soon replaced by someone who would.

I was always amused that Mobutu, born Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, would rename himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Wa Za Banga. If one is speaking of his perennial assaults on the Congolese treasury, the name would surely fit as the translation is "The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake", or Mobutu Sese Seko for short.

The difficulty in rooting out this behavior was delightfully illustrated by the expectations of Kenya's Nyang'oma district on their Big Man once he gains office, none other than Barack Obama, a Democratic senatorial candidate in Illinois whose campaign has "pledged to improve education, fight for more jobs and make health care more universally available." The people of Nyang'oma would like all of those as well in addition to having their "dirt roads paved and their houses equipped with electricity and running water."

"We know he's got his constituency there in America, the people who elect him," said Said Obama, 38, the uncle. "But we're another constituency. He won't want to see us suffering."

"He is Kenyan," Ms. Onyango [Barack Obama's stepgrandmother] insisted, prompting the other relatives to nod. She showed photographs of a young Mr. Obama climbing aboard a matatu, the crowded minibuses that local people use to get around. Another photograph in her stash featured Mr. Obama hugging Ms. Onyango, and she held up one that had the baby-faced politician beaming beside his other Kenyan relatives.

It is not a free-loading attitude that people here are expressing when they speak of largess coming their way after Mr. Obama takes office. It is a feeling of extended family: those who make it help those left behind. Mr. Obama may have never lived in Nyang'oma, or elsewhere in Kenya for that matter, but he is one of them in the popular imagination and surely, relatives say, he will want to share his great success with his kin.

If Obama makes good on his intent to visit Kenya a third time after the Nov election, he "can expect thousands of people to turn out to greet him" with as I like to say, "one hand up and one hand out."

At the Nyang'oma-Kogello Secondary School, near the Obama family home, students are fairly well versed on Mr. Obama's Senate race and full of pride that a man they consider a local appears on the verge of victory... "We hope that when he wins, we all win," said Lawrence Were, 17, a student at the nearby high school. "It's not all that easy for an African to go so far. We consider him our man."

The school's definition of victory is "refurbished classrooms and a new science lab at the school," a library with textbooks and, of course, more electricity and running water.

"People say there will be great development once he wins. They say the road will be fixed and that there will be an airport so he can land right here direct from the U.S."

Just like Daniel arap Moi did for his town, Eldoret, even as he was plundering Kenya with the Goldenberg export compensation scheme and other excesses which cost Kenya the equivalent of a third of its annual GDP.

One wonders if Barack Obama, raised so very far from Kenya, knew what expectations he innocently set when he came to explore his ancestry.

Illinois Democrat Wins Kenyan Hearts, in a Landslide
New York Times
October 25, 2004

Transparency International
Corruption Perceptions Index 2004
20 October 2004

Gordon Housworth

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