Africans are caught up in Obama’s hope

November 10, 2008

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KAMPALA, Uganda✦

So you think you feel good about what unfolded south of Canada’s border on Nov. 4?

You should see the party in Africa.

There has been dancing in the streets, public holidays and general high-fives from nationals to diplomats to expatriates, all convinced that, as one Ugandan paper put it, “America is reborn.”

It was just past eight in the morning on Nov. 5, at a recreation club here in Uganda’s capital, when I was awakened to this new world we’re apparently in. A smiling woman walked past and said to me, “Congratulations on your new president.”

She was gone before I could explain that I’m, in fact, a Canadian from Hamilton, Ont. Plenty of folks have seen me in my Canada T-shirts to prove it. But then, why bother? For the first time in seven years as a Canadian living abroad, I wasn’t embarrassed to be mistaken for a Yank.

In fact, next time it happens, I’m ready to say: “Why, thank you. Please drop by my family’s Rhode Island beach house when you can.” Or, since my family has no such house, maybe a “Yes we can,” or at least a gentle “God bless America.”

So it was there between the treadmills and cross-trainers, amid a cacophony of workout sounds, where I joined a misty-eyed, black-and-white crowd looking up at Barack Obama give his acceptance speech, live, just past midnight in Grant Park, Chicago, like it was the Second Coming.

My so-called new president spoke of service and community with an unusual energy and sense of history. It was as if he had found a lost piece of America’s soul and took it out of its box to be admired by the rest of the world: a world that, according to the Ugandan papers, would have voted 90 per cent for him.

Yes, our troubled planet is caught in the Obama Story, confirming, if nothing else, that politics is never just about issues but perceptions and characters, about stories and dreams. Africans — who have among the most difficult stories of any on Earth — particularly feel a new identity.

Because if my Kenyan neighbour’s son or grandson or nephew can rise to the world’s highest political office, then … well, you know how that finishes.

Others also connect with Obama because his is a multi-faceted narrative of a child of the world. As put by one commentator from northern Uganda, where rebel war has devastated a generation, “America needed a leader with a multi-social, multicultural religion, and multiracial background.”

Now many Africans pin their hopes on the U.S. holding certain African rogue leaders and rebels to higher accountability. They also expect more policies promoting trade and development and health care, such as for AIDS, building on what Bill Clinton started and George W. Bush continued.

I can partly relate to this new identity that Africans sense. It’s like the peculiar kinship I feel with anything to do with John F. Kennedy because of JFK’s insistence on saving a politically and militarily besieged Berlin, my native city. Realistically or not, the linkage makes me believe I’m that much more connected to that era, to the Kennedy story in general, and to an entire host of ideals and freedoms.

In fact, as I stood with those Africans on that Nov. 5 morning, it was like the ghost of JFK, if not Martin Luther King, hovered about. Obama’s address clearly tapped into the great truths shared by these men: that we are more than just a collection of individuals, but part of a larger, interrelated drama.

No man is an island. For better or worse, we all impact each other, sometimes very profoundly. It’s not a bad thing, connecting to these kinds of stories and dreams. But it’s still an incomplete picture.

Because even a superstar who plays with intelligence and giftedness, with grace and humility, depends on the team around him. And the Stanley Cup simply won’t come every year.

So when the party ends and the ghosts disappear, when the load becomes heavy and the road long, that’s when we’ll know that even hope — as true and worthwhile and audacious as it is — has a cost.

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November 10, 2008 • Posted in ,
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