Obama Country

Posted Jul 13, 2009 by 9 Comments

If you are an American, this is a great time to be in Kenya. Just mentioning your place of citizenship is likely to score you some high points here. And for good reason: Kenya’s favorite son recently became our 44th President.

Most Americans realize that President Barack Obama’s father was Kenyan, and I remember watching video footage of celebrations in his family’s village the night he was elected. But for most of us, the connection ends there. Not so for Kenyans!

One conversation we had during our safari is a good example of just how easily – and often – Obama comes up in daily conversation. Our team was sitting down to dinner at a remote restaurant in the middle of Tsavo East national park. Most of the tourists there are British, or some kind of European, so when our waiter heard we were from the States, his face lit up as he said, “Oh…so you’re from Obama country!”

And he is exactly right…the whole world knows President Obama as the new face of the USA, but the truth is that America has some competition. In fact, I’m pretty convinced that Kenya’s overwhelming love for Obama takes the term “Obama country” to a whole new level.

For instance, where else can you find barber shops named Obama Hairstyles, or a pair of Nike shoes with Obama’s face printed on them? And it’s not just found on memorabilia stuff like T-shirts, fabric, and pins. I saw a high-end bookstore displaying sizable portraits of Obama for his many admirers here in Nairobi.

Even the slightest mention of Kenya by Obama, and the local news will be all over it...

Even the slightest mention of Kenya by Obama, and the local news here is all over it...

Matatu drivers are especially big fans. Just this week while riding through town, I had the pleasure of watching a music video (tvs are mounted inside the van) where a reggae band was jamming out to the words “Barack Obama” repeated over and over. The most trendy matatus have even dubbed their rides “Buraq” and plastered the name all over the outside to attract passengers…creative spelling is always a plus.

And did you know that Obama even has his own national holiday? That’s right…along with Moi Day and Kenyatta Day (recognizing past Kenyan presidents), and Jamhuri Day (celebrating Kenya’s independence), November 6 is now Obama Day. This was actually declared in advance of Election Day last year, since the government knew his supporters and especially members of his tribe would riot if they were not given a holiday.

In the Western province, where Obama’s father lived, the connection gets even more personal. In the tradition of naming children after respected and influential people, many boys born within the last year are now named Obama. And the name of choice for baby girls? Michelle, of course!

Another interesting fact: Obama is from the Luo tribe, where extended family ties are blurred and every cousin and uncle is called brother or father respectively. So, lots of Luo people will claim with complete sincerity that Obama is their cousin…

For the Kenyans I’ve met, their unabashed adoration of Obama is anything but a political statement. They don’t care about supporting Democrats or Republicans. (Past generations of kids from the Western province were given names like Reagan and Clinton). What they really love is the inspiration Obama’s successful run for the presidency offers.

The newspaper had a 10-page full-color souvenir insert to honor Michael Jackson.

The newspaper had a 10-page full-color souvenir insert to honor Michael Jackson.

A church I attended my first week here displayed a huge banner of the Obama family as an example of success and commitment. When I visited the opening ceremony for a new school in Kibera slum, the guest speaker led the children in chanting “Yes, we can!” after Obama’s campaign rallying cry. (This may or may not have been inspired by the presence of American visitors in the room).

Given these constant “Obama sightings” I don’t think Obama’s popularity in Kenya is likely to fade anytime soon. But I have been receiving a new question lately, related to someone entirely different. Many music fans here have been kindly checking in to see how I, as an American, am dealing with the loss of the king of pop, Michael Jackson.

Really…I’m coping quite well, I assure them. All this love for anything American makes me feel quite at home!

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About the Author: Jessica Shewan is a journalist with World Next Door. She graduated in 2009 from The University of Evansville with a bachelor's degree in History. She loves making new international friends and is passionate about seeing the global church pursue justice and peace!

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  1. Rob Yonan said... 


    July 13th, 2009 at 10:39 am  

    such global interconnections. it’s amazing how much more of a one world culture is emerging in our lifetime

  2. Bill Shewan said... 


    July 13th, 2009 at 12:58 pm  

    Njoki: thanks for this article. Very interesting. The globe is shrinking.

  3. Amy Osgood said... 


    July 13th, 2009 at 1:07 pm  

    The people of Kenya understand political division. It’s interesting that what is a political division for our country, unifies theirs.

  4. Marilyn Shewan said... 


    July 13th, 2009 at 1:46 pm  

    Perspectives of who we are as “Americans” is certainly deepened as we travel. A President, “King of Pop”: connecting our world. I am glad to read your insights, Jess.

  5. grandma Mack said... 


    July 13th, 2009 at 10:53 pm  

    You, dear Jess, are part of the solution of “small thinking”. There you are thousands of miles away from the homeland, so to speak, and being embraced because you are an American . Not just any American but one who has God as her final Authority. We sense the world shrinking even as you obediently serve in a world so far away. Thank you for using your God given talents to spur us on here at home. Abby says “Hi”. she just got back from a week missions trip to Tenn. Love, grandma Mack

  6. Michelle said... 


    July 15th, 2009 at 11:03 pm  

    Very fun and well-written article, Jess. It made me smile to picture you taking all of this in and then finding words to describe it for the rest of us. I’m glad you are there during a time when Americans are viewed in a positive light regardless of the reasons!

  7. Brantley Shore said... 


    July 23rd, 2009 at 10:38 pm  

    I remember that when I was in Kenya in Janurary, President Obama did his swearing into office. That was interesting. Let’s just say the streets were empty…imagine that in Nairobi!

  8. Deb Bergman said... 


    August 5th, 2009 at 1:46 pm  

    Jessica….Great to see what you are doing and read this interesting story. We have been following Barry…he was in our wedding when he was 4. And I am so excited to hear and see what you are doing!

  9. Breanna Sipple said... 


    February 22nd, 2011 at 10:01 am  

    The thought of matatu’s playing a music video “where a reggae band [is] jamming out to the words “Barack Obama” repeated over and over” makes me laugh! I think there would be a much different reaction if that happened here in “Obama country.” I would have never know about this unless I had read this article, so thanks! It was very enlightening:)

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