Obama came bearing goodies all I got was the ‘Yes We Can’ T-shirt, and I’m happy

By the time Air Force One entered Kenyan airspace, American spy satellites were already locked on several locations in Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was akin to a militarised zone, major roads leading to the CBD were off-limits to the public, and exactly where the president of the United States would stay remained a closely guarded secret.

On disembarking, US President Barack Obama was greeted by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, and ushered into the “Beast,” the famous armour-plated presidential limousine.

Everywhere he went, he was guarded by scores of American Secret Service agents and Kenyan paramilitary forces. Every TV station was tuned into every aspect of the visit and newspapers devoted acres of space to tell and retell the Barack Obama story.

What a mindboggling difference to the first time he visited Kenya, the land of his father, who was mostly absent from his life.

Then, as he told a gathering at the Kasarani Stadium where he gave a speech on factors that hold down Kenya and Africa, he arrived with a backpack, was driven around in his half-sister’s car, which broke down several times, stayed in a cramped flat, and travelled anonymously around the country.

This difference tells the really significant story that we are missing as we analyse and debate the value of his visit to Kenya.

It is true, as some have remarked, that his association with Kenya — and his presidential visit — has generated unprecedented interest in the country. He has been a marketing phenomenon that no tourism promotional video could ever match.

All we now need in order to translate this huge international interest into mega tourism dollars is to address our terrorism and crime problems, fix our infrastructure and desist from killing each other at every election cycle.

Others have correctly pointed out that the “Obama effect” has got business people interested in Kenya and the region. Again, to translate this interest into investments, we need to rationalise our bureaucracy and get rid of corruption.

This latter might be difficult, given the fact that some of those in key leadership positions are themselves corrupt. The problem is further compounded by our tribalism, as witnessed by the clamour by fellow kinsmen for the reinstatement of those suspended from their high positions because of corruption.

People have also hoped that Obama will increase aid to Africa and help open up American markets to African goods.

This has not happened to an appreciable degree, partly because Obama has not been as strong on Africa as perhaps other US presidents and partly because we have not taken full aantage of instruments such as Agoa.

This is an area with huge potential. We can exploit this potential by crafting a strong and consistent American strategy. We often seem to be unsure about what we want from our relationships, drifting from West to East and vice versa to spite the one and then the other.

Perhaps, now that Obama has significantly dealt with the huge problems that gripped America at the time of his taking office, and wound down American military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, he may devote a lot more time to Africa.

And yet, as important as these benefits of the “Obama effect” are or will be, the story of the poor lad without any powerful or wealthy connections, a mixed-race kid raised by a single mother, who rose to be president of the USA holds the true meaning of Barack Obama.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Muhammad Ali stretched physical limitations and challenged psychological and other limitations placed on him by others as well as by himself. In so doing, he transcended boxing, and came to define the human spirit.

Likewise, Obama has beaten impossible odds, challenging our limited notions of the possible. He has transcended politics to represent something deeply profound that will resonate throughout the ages.

He has taught us — black, white, women, men — to defy that voice of doubt in us planted by racism, sexism, culture, societal orthodoxies, etc, and say: Yes, we can!

Tee Ngugi is a political and social commentator based in Nairobi.