As everyone knows, Barack Obama is popular all over the world. He is popular because he is not George Bush and repudiates Bush’s failed policies, because he gives everyone new hope for America and the world, and because his victory itself seemed to restore a sense of righteousness and justice to the world, to set something straight that was so gravely out of kilter. Part of Obama’s mystique is, of course, his skin color and biography. Even without understanding the details of his domestic or foreign policy, one knows right away that Obama represents a different kind of America, is from an ethnic/racial background and generation that has not yet been represented in the highest seats of power. He is black, he is biracial, his father was a Muslim, and he grew up in Hawaii and also in Indonesia. So many things about Obama seem fresh and different, to offer new perspective and hope.
The whole world is excited, yes, but Africa particularly so. When we mention these days that we are American, we are often met with “Obama” as a response. We’ve seen Obama stickers on shop signs and one Obama t-shirt. One American living in Mali told us that there is even a hair salon named after Obama in Bamako; the hand-painted business sign, characteristic of such signs all over West Africa, went up just days after the election.
Dogon Country, Mali
Ile de Goree, Senegal
Why the excitement? For one, Africans can with some justification claim Obama as one of their own. Obama is not only black, but far closer to Africa than the typical African-American, whose ancestors came to the American continent centuries ago as slaves and lived through the horrific and heroic African-American experience; Obama’s father was himself a Kenyan, a true African and citizen of Kenya, and essentially all of Obama’s father’s family (however poorly he may know them, given that his father left Obama and his mother when he was a baby) still lives in Kenya. For Africans, even Obama’s name is a very tangible reminder that he is just one generation away from the continent, that he is almost one of their own. Religion also serves as a common link. So many in the Muslim world seem to know that Obama’s father was a Muslim, and many even erroneously believe that Obama himself is a Muslim (as some Republicans so badly wanted Americans to believe). As Muslims themselves, the West Africans of Senegal and Mali seem to find it easier to identify with Barack Obama, and hope that Obama will usher in foreign policy that is not as anti-Islam as Bush’s appears.
But, perhaps more powerfully, Africans’ identification with Obama comes not only because of Obama’s specific ties to the continent but for similar reasons as African-Americans’ exaltation. For African-Americans, Obama’s election was tangible evidence that black Americans can make it to the very top of American society, that racism, while still alive, did not stop a clear majority of Americans from voting for a black man as President of the United States. Obama’s election was tangible evidence that anything is possible, despite race. This sort of affirmation was likely necessary in part because African-Americans have had a long-held suspicion that it was not possible, or almost impossibly difficult, for a black man to succeed in America, because there were too many barriers, including possibly race-motivated violence, in the way. To a population that is often made to feel downtrodden, Obama’s election was an event for great jubilation.
Africans recognize that they live in a continent that is, economically and politically, well behind the rest of the world. They recognize that Africans make up a significant percentage of the world’s most poor and that many African governments are among the world’s most corrupt and oppressive. This mild sense of shame is tangible–a hotelier showing us the relatively primitive plumbing of his bathroom described it as “toutes africaines” and a taxi driver described his nearly-falling-apart car as “une voiture africaine.” There is some pan-African pride, too, yes, but more often there is a sense that Africa, unlike North America or Europe or Asia, is a place that is backward and dysfunctional.
And so, just as an African-American may be sorrowful for all of the problems blacks face in America, and take pride and comfort in knowing that, despite it all, blacks can still rise to the very top of American society, some Africans we have met see in Obama proof that an African or a near-African, despite all of the problems the continent faces, can become the most powerful man in the world. As a young man in Dakar explained to us, now anything is possible, not only for African-Americans and other minorities in America, but also for Africans from Africa.
Will people be disappointed? Perhaps. Obama can’t be everything that the American left expects and desires, and everything that Europeans want of America, and everything that the Muslim world and the developing world think may come from a black President whose father was an African Muslim. He simply can’t please everybody. But as we keep telling people, everything may not be good after 4 or 8 years with Obama as our President, but everything will be better. Given the fiascos and disasters of the last eight years, everyone seems to be content with this expectation, with much nodding of heads, heartfelt pats on the back and even a few inshallahs. The African people, like the rest of us, are tired. They need what we all need, for America to lead again.
One funny story. We met a couple of Peace Corps volunteers who are working in a small village in Niger. Early morning on November 5, they woke up to the sound of great cheering as the villagers heard on the radio that Barack Obama had been elected the next President of the United States. The Americans, too, were overjoyed. Also living in their village was an American Christian missionary, who was apparently, as evangelical Christians were likely to be, a McCain supporter. Later that day, one of the villagers approached the Peace Corps volunteer, confused because Missionary Mark wasn’t excited and happy for Barack Obama. The villager just assumed that everybody wanted Obama to win, and couldn’t understand why one of the actual Americans among them wouldn’t be celebrating. Grinning broadly, the Peace Corps volunteer answered simply, “Because he’s dumb.”