Hope riding on a Kenyan 'son'

The Baltimore Sun

Over grilled goat meat and Amstel Light, the men banter in a rapid-fire blend of Swahili and English. It's hot, humid and loud on the gravel patio of this Northeast Baltimore bar, where the tables are covered with thatched umbrellas and Kenyan-style Lingala tunes pulse from a nearby TV.

Friday nights at Charlie Brown's are typically reserved for partying. But on this recent night, it's all about politics, as conversation centers on Kenya's most famous son - Barack Obama.

It doesn't matter that Obama was neither born nor raised in Kenya (his father, also named Barack, was from a small village in Kenya's Nyanza province). And whether he wins the race for the presidency is somewhat irrelevant. Among this circle of friends, Obama's nomination alone is cause for celebration, reflection and intense debate.

"In Kenyan culture, they consider Barack their son," said Mike Mugo, a 34-year-old nurse from Baltimore who grew up in Nairobi. "You are a son of Kenya, no matter where you live. And because of that, Kenyans feel immense pride."

"But if he is president, how does it help Kenya?" William Gachiri interjected, playing the self-described devil's advocate.

The exchange reflects a mix of pride, hope and trepidation about Obama's run for president. The pride is easy to articulate - Obama shares their lineage and appears to care deeply about the east African nation. An Obama presidency could boost Kenya's reputation in the U.S. and the world, they hope.

They also acknowledge that their dreams for an Obama presidency might be too lofty. Surely, Obama alone can't end ethnic tensions in Kenya, improve diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the world, and run the most powerful nation, they say.

In neighborhoods straddling Baltimore's northeast border with Baltimore County, Mugo has found a small but tightly knit community of Kenyans of various ethnic groups. About 4,700 Kenyans called Maryland home in 2006, according to the Migration Police Institute. Mugo and others say jokingly that nearly all of them hang out at the patio of Charlie Brown's.

They come for Nyama Choma, which translates to "grilled meat" in Swahili, a hugely popular Kenyan specialty served in heaping piles on styrofoam plates. The smoky scent of goat ribs wafts between the crowded tables of the dimly lit back patio. Meanwhile, in the front room of the bar - popular with a diverse bunch of native Baltimoreans and Kenyans alike - hip-hop music thumps through speakers.

In a conversation that touched on Kenya's economic and social problems and the complexities of race in America, the group expressed worries that Obama has a rough campaign ahead and that even if he wins the presidency, his administration might be unable to fulfill their expectations.

Gachiri dryly wonders aloud if too many Kenyans in America support Obama simply because of his lineage.

His three other friends scoff and chide him with laughter. Mugo shakes his head - no way.

"My support for Obama has nothing to do with him being black or Kenyan," Mugo said. "When I heard his speech at the Democratic National Convention, I started standing. I started cheering. Anybody, black, white, green or yellow, who spoke like this, I would have to identify with them. He appeals to a sense of decency."

Days after watching Obama's break-out speech in 2004, Mugo purchased his book, Dreams From My Father. He was impressed with Obama's accomplishments and how candidly he described being raised by a white mother from Kansas, longing to know his father in Kenya and ultimately finding his racial identity.

Obama also expressed deep affection for Kenya, said Joe Wachira, a high school teacher from Middle River. Wachira remembers a photo that appeared in the Kenyan newspaper, The Standard, showing a young Obama on the first of three visits to the country.

"He was helping his grandmother carry things, hanging out in the market, just doing the things that we do," said Wachira intensely. "He blended fairly easy in this Third World country, and that meant a lot to Kenyans."

And even though Kenyans affectionately call Obama "point 5" as in 0.5, to connote being half-Kenyan, they consider him every bit one of them, Wachira and others said.

Back home, Obama is considered such a hero that some people expect the impossible from him, Wachira said.

"They think Kenya has a rich friend in the U.S.," said Mugo. "For so many years, all we hear about Africa is negative things. Any person who goes and becomes famous and important and is contributing in this nature, they are proud."

The presumptive Democratic Party nominee receives rock-star treatment in Kenya, where a popular beer called Senator is known simply as "Obama." His popularity permeates a nation fractured along ethnic lines.

In January, Kenya's flawed presidential election resulted in ethnic violence between Luos and ethnic Kikuyus, the nation's most populous ethnic group (which includes President Mwai Kibaki). Obama's father was a Luo.

While many in Kenya reject tribalism, tensions remain, even among Kenyans in the United States, said Mugo, who grew up in Nairobi and moved to Baltimore for college 12 years ago.

"It's very subtle; you see it in the places people choose to hang out," he said. "I, personally, hate the tribal sentiment, but it is there."

Mugo and the others - all Kikuyu - said Obama's ethnic ancestry doesn't matter to them, nor to most Kenyans.

At the pool table, Steve Maina of Parkville said he wished Obama spoke out more forcefully against the ethnic strife several months ago.

"Being a presidential candidate in the most powerful country in the world, he needed to do something more to condemn the killing," said Maina, who is half Kikuyu, half Masai and has lived in Baltimore for 13 years.

Gachiri is the first of the four to say he fears Obama's race will be his chief barrier to the White House.

"Race is a huge factor here," he said, the other men nodding in agreement. "It's a part of the American social fabric. Just look at Hurricane Katrina."

"Remember what happened to Harold Ford?" chimed in Muchiri Kiiru, a teacher from Cockeysville, referring to the black Tennessee congressman who lost his bid for Senate in 2006 amid allegations of racially tinged ads. "We know about how complicated the South is."

Mugo agreed, saying he feared that Obama will be unable to shake the "black candidate" label, hurting his chances with white voters. Still, Mugo is hopeful.

"I believe there is a majority of Americans who are willing to do the right thing, black and white," he said.

Mugo is the constant optimist among his friends and family. His parents, who live in Kenya, have few expectations of an Obama presidency.

"Over the years, they have been disappointed by so much, even by the local politicians next door," he said. "Why would they expect anything of someone 10,000 miles away?"

Nevertheless, like many Kenyans, they see are Obama as an extension of themselves, Mugo said.

"If he can do it," Mugo said, "that means that little boy in the village can aspire to the greatest dream of all."


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