NAIROBI, Kenya — President Obama has been able to make strides in transforming American society from within by pushing through significant laws, such as, the Affordable Care Act and Marriage Equality Act, and foreign policy gains by pulling out the US troops from the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, negotiating the Iranian civil nuclear deal, and the opening up of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Yet, his efforts on behalf of the Kenyan people, his ancestral homeland, and the continent of Africa, or what Joseph Conrad  during heyday of British colonialism derogatorily called “the heart of darkness”[1], have been slow to materialize. Thus, the dreams from his father, Barack Obama senior’s post-colonial ideas about transforming African society and political economy remain unrealized.

In the landmark book, “The Dreams from My Father,” Obama shared two actual dream sequences that he reconstructed in relation to his father and grandfather, both key paternal figures he neither fully knew nor physically lived with for any significant period of time. Yet, in his imagination these larger-than-life patriarchal men have indeed shaped his memories, reflections and dreams. In this coming of age bildungsroman, Obama revealed in telling details how he learned of the passing of his father in the opening pages of the biography[2].

The dreams 

First, the father-in-prison dream, recounted how the young Obama tried to regain his father’s release from a jail, but unable to gain his freedom left the jail disappointed.  The young dreamer woke up crying from this nightmare, the only tears he had shed for his father.

Second, the dream of being chased by “Terror” included a haunting by a larger-than-life figure through the bush in his ancestral village of Kogelo, Kisumu.  The vaguely totemic figure turns out be his grandfather Hussein Onyango, whom everyone feared.  In the dream, the young Obama collapsed to the ground with exhaustion and dread, while his grandfather’s image loomed large over his body.

In “Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia,” I attempted an ‘armchair analysis’ of the president’s dreams in a chapter called, “Obama’s Mythic Dreams,” using both Freudian and Jungian theories.  I argued these two dreams were central to Obama’s archetypal journey from the White Nile, where the Luo tribe originated, to the White House, the seat of the most powerful democracy in the world[3].

Obama, as the prodigal son or what Joseph Campbell called “a mythic hero,” carries the magical potion[4]. The magic was evident this week in Nairobi City and the village of Kogelo when Obama completed a return journey to Kenya as the first American president to arrive in the nation of marathon-runners and now possibly the fastest growing economy in East Africa.  The land of his forefathers became overjoyed with Obama-mania.

Obama and Kenyatta at the State House press conference, Nairobi, Kenya; Photo by Dinesh Sharma
Obama and Kenyatta at the State House press conference, Nairobi, Kenya; Photo by Dinesh Sharma

Obama’s outer and the inner world converged this week.  How dreams shape an individual’s destiny is a complicated matter, always subject to different interpretations.  Yet, it is clear “big dreams,” often passed on generationally, as if through a mystical alchemy continue to shape our lives and the destiny of nations.  In Kenyan media, Obama was being compared to the ‘Baby Moses’ who has returned home to lead his people to the promise land, or the lion cub Simba, now grown-up through his exile has returned to restore Mufasa’s honor.

Thus, the dreams that inspired the father, Obama senior, to undertake an arduous journey through “Airlift to America” in the 1950s – from Hawaii to Harvard and back to Kenya — became a milestone for the son[5].  Barack Obama has been compelled by an overarching sense of destiny to carry out the unfinished dreams of his father into the 21st century.  It was a poignant moment when President Obama stood next to President Kenyatta at the State House.  Only a generation ago Obama senior worked in the Kenyatta government, whose career may have been sidelined due to internal politics, as President Obama himself talked about this during his speech at the Safaricom auditorium.

In other words, while President Obama may have realized in some significant measures the dreams of transforming American society, his father’s dreams of transforming Kenya and reviving a sense of pan-Africanism are still fleeting or hang in the balance. The list of targeted goals is long and complicated and may take another historical trajectory, or perhaps another generation of young Africans to fully achieve.

Ancestral homeland in Kogelo

In the ancestral homeland, Kogelo, Siaya County, when I asked Obama’s grand-mother Mama Sarah, now 94 years of age, what is her one wish she said, in her Luo dialect, the need to keep working to improve the lives of orphans and widows through her charitable work.

President Obama's grandmother Mama Sarah Obama with the author in Kogelo, Siaya County, Kenya
President Obama’s grandmother Mama Sarah Obama with the author in Kogelo, Siaya County, Kenya

The governor of Siaya County chimed in at the same time, “The infant and maternal mortality is one of the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa. We will petition President Obama to do something about it.” The governor wants the president to help build a full-scale hospital, a four year college or a university, and upgrade the secondary school named after the then Senator Obama, who came here in 2006.

“While the President’s father, Obama senior, may have journeyed through the hardship from this region by the grace of God, everyone is not so lucky,” the Siaya governor told the large crowd gathered to hear him speak.  In the compound of the Obama school, hundreds of visitors and school children filled the tents organized for cultural events, tribal song and dance, and to honor the native son of the soil.

The secondary school children appeared very serious and impressionable, full of purpose and meaning, intently listening to the praises being showered on the Obama family.  The young people were clearly touched by America’s first Kenyan-American president and America’s soft power working its magic in their remote sub-Saharan village.  All the talk of entrepreneurship amazed the students, with wall-to-wall coverage of the Obama visit in the local media, and almost all of the newspapers were replete with biographical and historically relevant information about the Obama family.

African entrepreneurship and the Chinese inroads

While President Kenyatta announced Kenya is ready for progressive policies throughout his government, he is putting a special emphasis on business entrepreneurship among the younger population.  Several innovative Kenyan start-ups were showcased here, including M-Pesa and M-Kopa Solar.

President Obama gave a boost for American entrepreneurship and the potential of partnering with the American companies.  Steve Case, former AOL founder and CEO of Revolution, said his group is investing in many startups in Kenya.  Nils Tcheyan, GE’s director of government relations in Africa, said US needs to be fully engaged and present in Africa in order to be not left behind.  Julie Hanna, head  of the board of Kiva, previously founder of Healtheon or WebMD, said startup culture is about the hope and aspirations of people and it is part of Kenyan culture, where women and mothers are central to the boosting of the local economy. The founder of clothing brand FUBU and host of Shark Tank, Daymond John said he has found walking around here that young people in Kenya are very interested in innovation and startups.

When I asked what is the White House strategy for dealing with the competition from China, whose government has more than two decades of investments in infrastructure, Steve Case said, “The first wave of investment in Africa was around infrastructure. I think the next wave which is now just breaking is around innovation. That is where I think the US is particularly advantaged. And trying to take some of the skill sets that have been learned not just in Silicon Valley but all around the US and apply them to Nairobi and Lagos and other emerging entrepreneurial ecosystems I think is the real opportunity.“

Mr. Tcheyan of GE said, ”I mean we can talk about China as a competitor, and there’s no doubt about it, they are a competitor. But if you’re not here, you’re not competing. So one of our messages back – and again, we appreciate the entrepreneurship summit and President Obama’s focus on Africa over these past years is a message to get more American companies here. Because once you are here, you start to see huge opportunities that can be developed. And then you’re competing with China in a different way, because you’re here and you’re present. The other thing that I can’t help but mention is the importance of the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization because that is – if we don’t have the Ex-Im Bank, that is really going to make it much tougher for us to match some of the financing that’s available from other countries.  So we’re very hopeful that that’s going to get through.”

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor said, “President looks at this – we welcome China in Africa. They’ve played a constructive role in developing infrastructure. …You asked though about what we bring to the table. First of all, we have decades of development relationships here. If you look at where we are, we’ve been very focused on food security. We’ve been very focused on power, increasingly, under this President. But there is shift from a paradigm where we’re providing assistance to a paradigm where we’re building capacity here in Africa. … So what we uniquely bring to the table I think is a relationship with Africa where we’re not just in for a set of natural resources; we’re here to build African capacity.”

Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker noted that the US strategy for infrastructural development in Kenya is emerging.  She disclosed that “US has just signed an MOU with the Kenyatta government, whereby American companies will compete for large infrastructure contracts.” There will be an upcoming meeting on the joint infrastructure projects and subsequently an infrastructure roadshow during the sideline meetings of the UNGA summit in New York in September 2015.

Will Obama spur Africa’s transformation?

At the press conference with President Kenyatta, Obama highlighted the wide-ranging discussion he had on the US-Kenya relationship:  the need for maintaining free press and civil society; building infrastructure and sustainable energy sources; building clean energy projects  through the Power Africa initiative; reauthorization of African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA); counter-terrorism and defeating al-Shabab; political c

Obama in Kenya
Obama in Kenya

orruption and graft; poaching of wildlife; banning ivory trade, security and border issues in Southern Sudan , Burundi’s recent election, investments in healthcare (Feed the Future initiative), girl’s education, direct flights and visa extensions for Kenyan citizens; and finally the Young Africans Leadership Initiative (YALI).  It sounded as if Obama was now gearing up to transform Kenyan society as he nears the end of his term in the U.S.

On the success of the Kenyan homecoming, Obama’s intergenerational dream of transforming the African continent – inherited trough his father’s journey – capped off a very important week as the president headed to the African Union summit in Adis Abbaba, Ethiopia, where the US is following a multipronged strategy towards “advancing democracy, human rights, gender equality, wildlife conservation, and governance in Africa.”

According to the White House, President Obama is committed to pursuing “these goals through our development assistance, high-level diplomatic engagement, partnership with like-minded stakeholders, and public diplomacy that engages directly with citizens across the continent.  Several of President Obama’s signature initiatives directly promote and elevate inclusive, transparent, and democratic governance in Africa.”

A Kenyan journalist asked the President Obama what are his plans for Kenya after his presidency, to which he replied, “I will be back.”  I followed up this question with his National Security adviser Ben Rhodes, who said that while Obama’s post-presidency plans for Africa have not been fully developed yet, he can say with some certainty, “I think the President has gotten a lot of satisfaction out of seeing how the Young African Leadership Initiative and the Global Entrepreneurship Summit process have galvanized young people in Kenya.”

Obama’s early days of community organizing in Chicago, with very little money and resources, may find a resonance among the youth in Kenya and all over Africa. In addition to organizing people he gets a high from mobilizing the young entrepreneurs. “I think he sees a lot that can be done in terms of bringing people together and promoting youth empowerment and entrepreneurship. So those are certainly two areas that he touched on that I think he’ll carry forward,” said Rhodes.  And as a private citizen he will be able to do more Kenya-specific projects as he likes.  As a president he has been focused specifically on development, health and security relationship with Kenya.

While many American presidents have spent their post-presidency devoted to Africa’s renewal (President Carter, Bill Clinton chief among them), Obama as the son of an African father will have a special place in the hearts and minds of Africans. The president’s global persona around the world has always received higher approval ratings abroad than at home, as I have shown in my book, “The Global Obama.”[6]  Whether Obama ever runs for a higher office in Kenya or other parts of Africa seems like a remote possibility, but there is no doubt he will continue to work for Africa’s transformation throughout his lifetime, always in pursuit of the unfinished dreams from his father.

Dinesh Sharma is associate research professor at Binghamton University’s Institute for Global Cultural Studies in Binghamton, N.Y. He is the editor of “The Global Obama: Crossroads of Leadership in the 21st Century,” published by Routledge Press. His previous book, “Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President,” was rated as the Top Ten Black History Book for 2012. He also teaches on “UN and Global Leadership” at Fordham University, NYC.

[1] Conrad, Joseph. 1902. Heart of Darkness.

[2] Obama, Barack. (1995). Dreams From My Father. New York: Three Rivers Press.

[3] Sharma, Dinesh. (2012). Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia. Connecticut: Praeger.

[4] Campbell, Joseph. (1968). The hero with the thousand faces. New Jersey: Princeton Press.

[5] Schactman, Thomas. (2009). Airlift to America. New York: St Martin’s Press.

[6] Sharma, Dinesh. (2014). The Global Obama.

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