Obama's challenge in Africa
Obama!" yells one man. "Obama!" chimes in another. "Obama, Obama!" echoes a sympathetic third. They are referring to me. Since I am a 32-year-old white guy, this is a novelty. I am rarely mistaken for the president at home.
"Obama!" yells one man.
"Obama!" chimes in another.
"Obama, Obama!" echoes a sympathetic third.
They are referring to me. Since I am a 32-year-old white guy, this is a novelty. I am rarely mistaken for the president at home.
I learn quickly enough that I have not been mistaken for our new president in Uganda, either. Rather, "Obama!" has become the catcall of choice for Ugandan vendors attempting to flag down Americans.
This is a distinct improvement over the old catcall of choice: "Mzungu!"
While mzungu - meaning, roughly, "white man" - is technically more accurate than Obama, it is distinctly less pleasant, at least if one is a Democrat.
Obama has replaced more than just epithets in Kampala, the capital. Teens who once wore shirts bearing the graven image of the late rapper Tupac Shakur now sport Obamawear. Little shack restaurants bear his name and visage.
One restaurant has chosen the name "Obama Take Away." Its marquee shows the president looking confidently toward the future - a future that, judging by the sign, includes a plate of beans and matoke, Uganda's ubiquitous mashed plantains.
I am an Obama supporter. I voted for him partly because I believed his election would change how the world sees America. As a grad student working for Duke University's Microfinance Leadership Initiative in Nkokonjeru, Uganda, I am now face-to-face with the reality of that change. And I don't know about the rest of the world, but for Africans, at least, we are Obama, and Obama is us.
On the face of it, this is a good thing. It is proof to the world that, in the United States, everyone has not only a place at the table, but also a shot at sitting at the head of it. It is proof that American exceptionalism means more than exceptionally powerful or exceptionally rich.
Long oppressed and despised minorities do not get voted into power in other countries. They either seize power, as the Sunnis did in Iraq, or they remain oppressed. We have proved we are different - exceptional.
Yet I worry about the Obamamania in Africa. I fear that the president is being set up for failure.
The American relationship with Africa is not in a particular state of disrepair. In the Christian portion of the continent, the Bush years were not the diplomatic catastrophe they were in the rest of the world. While Africans are generally ecstatic over the election of Obama, many have kind words for George W. Bush as well.
The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief initiated by Bush has provided massive assistance to African nations in their efforts to halt the spread of HIV and provide drugs to those afflicted. The program is not perfect, and some of its prohibitions on family planning are strictly political. But thousands of Africans received anti-retroviral medicines thanks to Bush, and are alive today as a result. Following this successful Africa policy leaves Obama with a higher bar for success.
I also worry that Africans might expect too much. During a recent bus trip, I talked to Ken, a chatty Ugandan fellow who was already disappointed in the president. "I don't like Obama," he said. "He's selfish."
Obama can do a lot for Africa. He can support democracy, increase aid, facilitate trade, and treat Africans with respect. What he cannot do, however, is make Africa as rich as America. And I'm afraid that's what people like Ken are hoping for - a huge transfer of wealth from Obama's country to the continent of his ancestors.
Fortunately, I don't think we have to make Africa as rich as the United States to win over guys like Ken, because most Africans have no idea how rich America is. They know we are rich, but the level of difference is unimaginable.
If we help them get a little richer; if we increase access to medicine, clean water, and decent government; if we take their concerns seriously - that will be enough. It will be more than anyone has done since Europe eviscerated the continent.
But risks remain. If Obama does not give Africa some speck of his attention - if he does not improve on the humane HIV policies of the Bush administration - then Ken will be right. Obama will have been selfish. And, because to the people here Obama is us, we will have been selfish, too.