Obama’s Second Trip to Kenya

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We do hope that Barack Obama will have, is having, or has had a pleasant trip to Kenya as you read this.

That said, we would like to comment on a few points of a Washington Post article by Kevin Sieff. Our comments refer to government policies or newspaper comments that may be questionable, which is not to disparage the individuals who formulated the same. Insofar as I, not being American, am unaffected, my only obligation is to hope for the best for everyone, though I may disagree on their ends, and even more on the means.

Barack Obama, in the mind of a seven-year old, is a king. This assertion needs to be analyzed from the linguistic and cultural traditions of Kenya. Too few of us can really understand what is meant by this sentence. Most of us understand it from a Eurocentric point of view, some guy with a golden crown on his head, a sceptre in his hands. The brief articles available to the general public in Wikipedia do not allow us to imagine that the lands of Kenya, a democracy, had experience with any kings other than those of colonial powers. If, at times prior to the exposure to Vasco de Gama, there were any local kings, we should like to know how they came to power: by force, or by some form of acclamation.

If the seven-year old’s mother tongue was Swahili, he may have been thinking in terms of the word “mfalme”, meaning either”ruler”, “king”, “chief” or “sultan”. While a president is not necessarily a ruler, the term applies to those presidents who are dictators. In this case, the term “king” would be the best translation from Bantu. The meaning of “chief” together with the derivative “ufalme”, meaning “chieftanship”, suggests that the title-holder may have a dignity much less than that of a king. “Hail to the Chief!” might well be sung.

(Looking at the possible meaning of “sultan” must bring back unpleasant memories of a time when the present day Kenya was governed from a sultanate, and served as a source of slaves.)

However the concept of president may be understood in Kenya, the above ideas from the Swahili may explain why it was that more was expected to be done for East Africa by President Obama. The restraints upon presidential power in the American tradition may not be well understood.

An example of a substandard school, with leaking roofs is given. I live in a supposedly more-advanced Latin American country suffering from the same problem. We even have a president! As for the high drop-out rate, clearly, what seems to be needed, and this is said tongue-in-cheek, is a “No Child Left Behind” program. Graduates before buildings! On a more serious level, if the roof is not flat, economical means to prevent leaks must be at hand. After all, even the British had thatched roofs. Personal disclosure: In the Latin American country where I am, I have lived in at least 3 buildings with leaking roofs, the first one really challenging me to a place where my bed could be kept dry. If I had access to the roof, I fixed it, even though it was not my responsibility.

Near the end of the article we are commenting upon, we come upon the observation that potential French donors to a Barack Obama Secondary School in the village where Barack Obama’s father was born backed out, when they disovered that the building had no deed for the land upon which it sits. This is clearly a Western bias for customs of countries where no title deeds were ever issued.  About this matter, I will specifically refer to problems caused by colonialism in three cases, Algeria, the American West, and South Africa.

The Algerian case is illustrated at the beginning of the movie, Outside the Law, by Rachid Bouchareb, and the problem is mentioned in this New York Times film review.

For the American South West, I offer 2 articles, all dealing with what happened to Native Americans.  In the link which follows, search, and read as of the words “In the 1823”.  The article is by William Grigg. (The first part of the article is about land grabs in the United States at present time, and might be disputable.

From the same web site, we get a more dispassionate article, where Ryan McMacken mentions, and argues against, Western man’s concept of private property as superseding those of communal ownership or the effective non-ownership of nomadic peoples.  He is not a Communist, the matter at hand is about justice.  It is strange to note his mentioning that the Pope of an earlier age requested that the Indian’s property rights be respected, wherein we see both the naivite of the Pope’s knowledge of native custom, and of the obedience which would be shown to his pronouncement.

On a fictional level, we see the problem portrayed in the movie Joe Kidd, starring Clint Eastwood.  Here, the victims are Mexicans who have long been on the property which is coveted by a landowner.

The last case we present to argue a misunderstanding which predates any ideological labels of left, socialist, or communist, versus right, fascist, or capitalist; is found in Pierre L. van den Berghe’s South Africa: A Study in Conflict.  Scrolling to page 219, not far from where the link should land the reader, we see that Africans believed in “communal tenure” as opposed to the idea of land which is individually owned.

We will now tie the above cases in with what might conceivably happen in Kenya, if the West gets overly interested.

If we read the name of the village in question, Kogelo, as if it were Spanish, albeit misspelt, we get, “Grab it”. That’s a nice tie-in to our previous paragraphs, where what happened to untitled property owners was illustrated. So, we see, without a title – a deed, there is either the sin of omission:  no help; or the possibility of a sin of commission: an excuse for a land-grab.

There is another Spanish translation possible, but it is better left unprinted.

On a more positive note, we have read that growth prospects for Africa are good. If that is so, their leaders should quickly give out land deeds, to protect their citizens and their country from the plagues arising form the uncertainties that the current state of affairs presents.

If leadership is not from within the country, it may be exerted from without. In that case, Kenya would in effect be like the colony it once was to the British, or to Zanzibar before that.  Even Obama wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

June 3 and 4, 2015.

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