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Elated Kenyans Revel In Obama Win

Kenyans dance at a watch party for the U.S. presidential election in Kogelo village, home to President Obama's step-grandmother. Kenyans were elated by the president's re-election.

As the news spread that the son of the late Barack Obama Sr. — a Kenyan government economist — had held on to the most powerful presidency in the world, the elation across this East African nation was contagious.

One Nairobi radio DJ could scarcely contain himself on Wednesday. "How are your feelings this morning, this Obama Day morning? Talk to me and share your feelings with me," he said.

High Hopes For A Long-Expected Visit

Though the White House has made no promises, many Kenyans are firmly convinced that in his second term, President Obama will pay a visit to the land of his paternal relatives. He came no closer than Ghana and Egypt in his first four years, but "next year, he'll be right here with Air Force One," predicted one excited radio caller.

Yeah, he's not a Kenyan, but he's Kenyan by nature.

The mood was ebullient at a big election-watch party held at the U.S. ambassador's residence in a tropical Nairobi suburb. Mang'u High School had sent a group of students to the gathering so they could watch American democracy in action.

"We are very happy and proud for his success," said Jane Muridi, Mang'u's dean of studies. "We feel great, and we have seen the way the Americans have voted."

Muridi says she was impressed by how quickly and peacefully the U.S. votes were counted. She hopes that Kenya's own presidential election, set for March of next year, can emulate the smooth process.

That would be a welcome change after the country's 2007 contested election, when disgruntled Kenyans divided by tribe and brutally killed more than 1,000 of their fellow citizens. The eyes of the world will be on Kenya next spring to see whether it can have a bloodless transition of power.

'Kenyan By Nature'

Born in Hawaii, Barack Obama is American, not Kenyan. But in this country, with its enduring traditions of tribe and clan, he is resolutely claimed as one of their own. His father's family belongs to the Luo tribe, which hails from a western province bordering Lake Victoria.

Steve Njuguna, 16, a junior at Mang'u High School, says President Obama is a role model for him and all of his friends.

"Because they see it as an opportunity, if a Kenyan is able to go to U.S. and become president," Njuguna says. "They see it as something which is revolutionary, that Kenyans are able to conquer the world."

When reminded that the American president is not Kenyan, Njuguna is undeterred. "Yeah, he's not a Kenyan, but he's Kenyan by nature," he says.

In the newsroom of Nairobi's Daily Nation newspaper, columnist Jack Otieno says that Obama has become so respected in four years that his popularity compares to that of former South African President Nelson Mandela.

"Obama is a young Mandela," Otieno says. "A lot of young people identify with the message of hope. He's restored the dignity of the black man, of the African, of the Kenyan."

In fact, says Otieno, the American president is one of the few political figures who unite all of Kenya's fractious tribes.

"You talk to a Kikuyu, you talk to a Luo, you talk to a Luyha, talk to a Kamba — they all love Obama," he says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018 and again in 2019, he won a national Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.

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