Barack Obama’s eagerly awaited homecoming in July jolted many, especially the Luos, out of a romantic stupor. Obama’s meteoric rise to the pinnacle of America’s state power as the first African-American president with strong Kenyan roots had held out much promise for the far-flung villages in his father’s homeland, such as K’ogelo Nyangoma in Siaya County, where Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr., was raised.
The launch of his half-sister Auma Obama’s Sauti Kuu, a K’ogelo-based learning and resource centre, was full of tensions and contradictions. It revealed not only the limits of Barack Obama’s soaring rhetoric on human equality and democracy, but also Auma Obama’s feminist politics, which was nearly drowned in the din of corporate accolades and her diatribe against the Luo have-nots for their practice of “gonya gonya” and “konya konya” (soliciting hand-outs).
Of the eight children sired by Barack Obama Sr., Auma Obama is closest to her famous half-brother Barack. She is also among the most educated of her siblings, having attained a PhD from Bayreuth University in Germany. Auma and Barack’s fondness for each other was evident when the latter made an official visit to Kenya in July 2015 when he was the US president – Auma not only was at the airport to receive him but had the unusual privilege of sharing his armoured limousine – popularly known as “The Beast” – with him. This bond is probably what prompted Barack Obama to agree to attend the opening ceremony of Sauti Kuu, a project that Auma initiated to improve the lives of youth in her home village.
Speaking at the opening of the Sauti Kuu centre, Barack Obama said he was “really coming back as a citizen of the world, with so many people who are family to me, as a brother, as a citizen of the world, as someone with a connection to Africa.”
“I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision, I believe in the vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln,” Obama thundered when delivering the Nelson Mandela annual lecture in Johannesburg shortly after his Kenya visit. “I believe in a vision of equality and a vision of justice and freedom and multiracial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal and they are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible,” he said, extolling the virtues of liberal democracy.
But a day before, in Nyangoma-K’ogelo, the Barack Obama-Auma Obama tag-team’s performance showed that the rhetoric of human equality was just that — rhetoric. Sauti Kuu’s launch reflected the failure of the Obamas to mitigate the power and material inequalities that often characterise human relations.
Obama’s return to Kenya was low-key, some said. Disappointing, others noted. But it served many sobering lessons – lessons well known by the residents of coastal cities such as Mombasa or Malindi, whose wisdom and maritime experience span the ebb and flow of geopolitics and commerce, from the days of the dhow to the coming of cruise ships. They will tell you that when a big ship docks at a quay near you, it doesn’t lift up every canoe ashore; no one rides atop the crest of its waves. It comes ashore with sharks in tow that feed off its jetsam; its powerful engines and propellers generate waves that can easily keel one’s canoes over, producing ripples that can easily drown, rather than buoy up, even the strongest swimmer.
Sailing in a skiff, rowing a boat, or swimming too close to such a ship is a perilous undertaking, unless, of course, you are a corporate shark or a ticket-carrying passenger aboard the ship. Only those aboard and the sharks know the unalloyed joy of disembarking to the ecstatic reception of crowds, expectant with hope.
A disappointing homecoming
Barack Obama might be free of the cumbersome security restrictions of a sitting US president, but he is still captive to the restrictions of Brand Obama, which eschews radical black politics at home in the United States – as Aziz Rana, a law professor at Cornell University, points out – and avoids the murky politics of “home square” in Kenya. Since his rise to the presidency of the United States, Obama has avoided sailing too close to Kenya’s politics, especially Luo politics. He has assiduously avoided Kenya’s narrow ethnic or national capture, but has embraced and celebrated corporate capture, which has taken away the warmth, charm and spontaneity that endeared him to so many, especially in Siaya and Kisumu, when he first came calling when he was a senator from Illinois.
Barack Obama might be free of the cumbersome security restrictions of a sitting US president, but he is still captive to the restrictions of Brand Obama, which eschews radical black politics at home in the United States…and avoids the murky politics of “home square” in Kenya.
In 2006, Senator Obama courted the affection of Kenyans, addressing crowds of people in Nairobi, Kisumu, and Siaya. On that occasion, Raila Odinga, whose political future looked bright too, accompanied him and his wife, Michelle, on their home square stretch of the journey. The Obamas took an HIV test at the Nyanza General Hospital to publicly demonstrate individual responsibility on matters of sexuality and sexual health as well as to demonstrate moral leadership on a serious health concern as crowds of Kisumu residents looked on from afar. He addressed the residents of K’ogelo at a primary school, speaking a word or two in Dholuo, acts that greatly endeared him the Luo/K’ogelo community, with many spinning yarns of kinship connections to the Obama family after his visit. But on his return to his father’s homeland this year, Obama spurned the Luo/K’ogelo community, claiming to be “a citizen of the world” and took this visit as an opportunity to take a dig at those “who claim to be family” (a reference to those who have used their kinship ties to the Obama family to lay claim on him).
Since he became the president of the United States, Obama’s visits to Kenya have become stilted, served to carefully selected and canned audiences in a heavily guarded stadium or hall. In Nyangoma-K’ogelo, no effort was made to extend the joy of seeing and listening to Barack Obama to the hundreds of villagers and admirers who were not invited to the Sauti Kuu launch. Not even a giant TV screen, like the one put up far away in Kisumu’s Kenyatta Sport Grounds for some residents of Kisumu, was put up for the villagers of K’ogelo.
Instead, hundreds of sweat-drenched villagers stood by the roadside on a hot sunny day eagerly waiting, hours on end, to catch a glimpse of or to wave at K’ogelo’s most famous son under the watch of hawk-eyed police officers. There was the occasional pulling and pushing, as the crowds surged forward to catch a glimpse of the dignitary. “We are disappointed that after spending more than nine hours here, it was in vain. We never came to beg, but we just wanted to see our son and greet him,” Ms. Mary Awour told the Nation. “We are happy he came, but angry that they have not allowed us to access the venue,” Mr. Kennedy Owino told the Standard.
“We are disappointed that after spending more than nine hours here, it was in vain. We never came to beg, but we just wanted to see our son and greet him,” Ms. Mary Awour told the Nation.
Some Kenyans on Twitter mocked Barack Obama, saying he “is facing the same challenge African men face…spouses refusing to accompany you to your ancestral home,” a reference to the fact that Michelle Obama chose to go to a Beyoncé concert in Paris rather than accompany her husband to the Sauti Kuu launch in K’ogelo.
In Siaya County, Cornel Rasanga, the governor, experienced the emasculating power of Obama’s security detail: “My friend, I’m the host here. I don’t need to be searched,” he is reported to have said. His Kisumu County counterpart, Prof. Anyang’ Nyongo, and his deputy, Mathews Owili, however, submitted to the checks at the gate of Sauti Kuu without a fuss.
Governor Rasanga could neither count on the fabled Luo kinship ties that bind every Luo to the Obamas nor on the prestige of his office to get a dignified hearing. He had to boldly waylay Obama’s entourage as it made its way to the main hall to get in a word edgewise.
In the main hall, the chosen ones – a motley crew of celebrities and corporate types – were entertained by talented dance troupes. A sumptuous lunch awaited them at the end of the event.
Auma Obama’s stage was set. Her finest moment was also a moment of some hard-hitting truths for the Luos – spoken and unspoken. By design, the event assiduously avoided Luo patriarchal, parochial political capture, but embraced and celebrated corporate capture. Auma Obama stoked insurgency against Luo patriarchs, symbolically silencing the governors of Kisumu and Siaya, other patriarchal Luo voices, and perhaps those of their accomplices, such as Ida Odinga, who also attended the launch. However, she amplified resilient Luo women, such as Phoebe Asiyo, a Luo elder and former Member of Parliament for Karachuonyo Constituency in Homa Bay County.
The Luo society’s male-dominated leadership was reduced to peripheral or perfunctory roles. Prof. Nyongo welcomed Obama at the Kisumu International airport. Strictly observing protocol and official business, unlike the welcoming of the Cuban doctors in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport a few weeks before, there was no time for the multilingual governor to wax lyrical in Dholuo, English or Spanish. Together with Governor Rasanga, Prof. Nyongo and other leaders were part of the audience, assigned a minor role in K’ogelo. No elected leader from the area spoke at the event.
Only Phoebe Asiyo, spoke, signaling a welcome endorsement of strong women leadership among Luo society. She, in turn, symbolically endorsed Auma Obama’s leadership, perhaps signaling a long overdue inter-generational succession in Luo politics.
Although Mrs. Odinga’s presence was hardly publicly acknowledged, contrary to the custom in this part of the world, where she enjoys the title and privilege of being a Min piny (mother of a people/nation/territory). Was her voice silenced at the launch because she too is a leftover from the past political struggles though now part of the Luo leadership for whom the struggle is past?
Auma Obama’s launch ruffled many feathers, not just of Luo leaders, but also of the Luo have-nots, the riff-raffs who supposedly don’t want to earn their keep. When she first broached the contentious conversation on the practice of “gonya gonya,” as an irritating act of begging or dependency by the Luo have-nots on the Luo haves, she sounded urban chic. Her remarks, like a sting in the tail, came at the end of a wide-ranging interview with Ann Kiguta of Citizen TV on a number of issues: Kenyan students burning schools; parenting; education; NGOs; slums and development; Barack Obama’s legacy; and the upcoming launch of Sauti Kuu. “This is this gonya gonya … gimme, gimme. Stop guys, stop… In the time that Obama has been president, up until now, what have you done? What have you done to make a difference in your country, in your life, in your community? Because you cannot sit and just wait for Obama. I can tell you what I have done… Do something. Stop gonya gonya,” she said. In yet another interview with the KTN TV, Auma was emphatic: “We are trying to change the mentality of gonya gonya, give me give me, help me, help me. Don’t keep begging.”
Auma Obama’s launch ruffled many feathers, not just of Luo leaders, but also of the Luo have-nots, the riff-raffs who supposedly don’t want to earn their keep.
On the auspicious occasion of the launch of Sauti Kuu, Asiyo reiterated Auma’s message. Speaking in Dholuo, she said: “Adwaro nyiso oganda Luo niya, ng’ama ja kwecho e piny oganda Luo, onge dwol. Ok nyal goyo mbaka kata e anyuola. Auma en nyako ma eluungo ni migogo, ka ne een dichuo waluonge ni Migosi. Etimo gima lich ne oganda Luo….” (I want to tell groups that make up the Luo community that one who begs among us has no voice. You can’t even participate in a conversation among your kin. Auma is a woman called a Migogo. If she were a man we would call her a Migosi. You have done something great for the Luos).
Unbowed, Auma Obama said, “We need to start taking care of ourselves, we can…let’s stop the gonya gonya syndrome. Let’s stop, and I repeat it even if I get a lot of flak on social media, let us stop the gonya gonya, konya konya, syndrome. I insist, and if you think you are mad at me come and join me let us work together and I’ll show you how not to do it.”
The Sauti Kuu initiative and the criticism of the Luo have-nots echoed her brother Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative in America, with its emphasis on hard work, individual responsibility and self-reliance. However, Auma failed to address the social and political contexts that give rise the practice of gonya gonya. Her criticism evoked furious responses. Some took offence with the manner in which she broached and took up the conversation on gonya gonya, first on national television, where ethnic pride is at stake, and second, in the glare of the international press at the launch, where the community was stripped of its pride and dignity on a global platform. Perhaps those who took to tweeting in Dholuo (but who normally tweet in English) were expressing a wish that this was a Ramogi-FM kind of conversation, an in-group, internal critique. It hurt many who also find the pesky practice of begging for hand-outs shameful but yearn for a safe space for this kind of conversation.
Some took to Twitter, saying that Auma “oelo dugwa,” (Auma has exposed) rather than covered up communal nakedness, a response that expresses a shared sense of shame that the practice of begging brings to a community whose members once lived by mantras such as “adak makata ee oonge,” (I do or can live without you) while sustaining opposition politics against one party-state repression, and without asking for relief food even during severe famines.
Some took to Twitter, saying that Auma “oelo dugwa,” (Auma has exposed) rather than covered up communal nakedness, a response that expresses a shared sense of shame that the practice of begging brings to a community whose members once lived by mantras such as “adak makata ee oonge,” (I do or can live without you)
But the loudest responses were viscerally misogynistic, couched in the caustic and retrogressive terms that have characterised Luo politics from the days of Grace Akinyi, Kenya’s first post-independence female mayor and the first woman Member of Parliament, to those of Phoebe Asiyo and Millie Odhiambo, the twice-elected Member of Parliament for Suba North. The responses reflected castration angst, misogyny, and sexism, captured in a concept frequently used to stoke the patrilineal and patrilocal prejudices of Luo society: “en migogo or tend migogo rach,” (a married woman’s leadership is bad or being led by a married woman is a bad thing).”
A male-centric reading of who a migogo is holds that as once married, a daughter or a sister might have some stake in the affairs of her father’s home, but has no voice over issues that matter. She may contribute material resources but can neither sit where binding decisions are made nor lead the rest of the family and clan on such matters. Instead, she must defer to her uncles and brothers on matters affecting her natal homestead.
Migogo means different things to different people but it is mostly a misogynistic slur.
A male-centric reading of who a migogo is holds that as once married, a daughter or a sister might have some stake in the affairs of her father’s home, but has no voice over issues that matter. She may contribute material resources but can neither sit where binding decisions are made nor lead the rest of the family and clan on such matters.
Millie Odhiambo blows a raspberry at those who use the concept to denigrate and exclude women from active involvement in their family, community and constituency politics. She provides alternative reading of the concept. “Migogo connotes I am a daughter and not a stranger. Migogo had a special place. If she visited she was allowed to go to the dero (granary) and pick whatever she wanted. I went to the dero and picked leadership,” she told the Sunday Nation four years ago.
As Gilbert Ogutu points out, the fisherfolk of Nam Lolwe (the Luo name for Lake Victoria), who include Millie Odhiambo’s constituents in Rusinga and Mfangano islands, named their boats after a grandparent, or someone of great achievement. Ogutu notes that these fisherfolk say Yie en migogo as well as Yie en mgongo and that one can easily miss the difference between migogo (married woman) and mgongo (the keel of a boat); this difference completely collapses when they quip that “yie en migogo,” (a boat is a married daughter).
Auma Obama, like Millie Odhiambo, seems to have “returned,” to her father’s homestead and picked out leadership too, but did she get Sauti Kuu’s keel right? Did she place Sauti Kuu on an even keel in the choppy patriarchal waters of Nam Lolwe as well as those of black politics of education and freedom?
Gonya gonya double standards
At the launch of Sauti Kuu, it seems not all kinds of “asking,” “help me,” or “begging” riled Auma Obama. Asiyo’s “askings” or “help us” at the launch did appear odd but did not merit a strong public response from Auma. Speaking in Dholuo, Asiyo asked Auma Obama to build a Sauti Kuu in Homa Bay County, where Hussein Onyango Obama, Auma’s grandfather, migrated from. Speaking in English, Asiyo also asked Barack Obama to use his connections and get someone from America to help the Luos get rid of the hyacinth weed that has impeded fishing and navigation in Lake Victoria since the early 1990s.
It seems that the gonya gonya that riles Auma Obama is the kind that doesn’t do her political bidding. What irks Auma are the hand-outs that the Luo haves give to the Luo have-nots, the kind of donor funding that stigmatises its beneficiary because it comes without a written proposal or a memorandum of understanding between the giver and the taker.
Nurtured mostly by opportunistic politicians whose political agenda was out of sync with the Luo society’s aspirations, “gonya,” also translates to “untie me” or “set me free”, in English. It is a code word for a hand-out and is mostly used on politicians by a cynical and demoralised electorate. Its seeds were sowed by KANU politicians who thought they could buy their way out of the strong waves of Luo opposition politics. The Luo, in turn, used it as a mechanism of extracting a pound of flesh out of the elite, especially the politicians, who once ensconced in public office or because they were rich, disengaged from the affairs of the village and became unreachable.
Ironically, gonya gonya, in its irritating form, is partly nurtured by the Auma Obama rural development model: top-down, elite know-it-all-driven projects executed without any meaningful participation of the “beneficiary or host community”, who presumably know nothing about what’s good for them and who have no preferences. It is noblesse oblige par excellence, underpinned by no reciprocal horizontal relationship between the giver and the receiver, thereby displacing collective communal action and its positive effects.
Ironically, gonya gonya, in its irritating form, is partly nurtured by the Auma Obama rural development model: top-down, elite know-it-all-driven projects executed without any meaningful participation of the “beneficiary or host community”, who presumably know nothing about what’s good for them and who have no preferences.
Listening to Auma Obama’s tributes to “my donors, my sponsors, my partners, my family”, one is hard pressed to point out what the K’ogelo Nyangoma community’s contribution to Sauti Kuu is, apart from being the immediate beneficiaries of the project. Auma thanked the Red Cross, Kenya Airways, the Eagles, Toyota, and the Gina Din Group. But the Nyangoma-K’ogelo community’s offer of 24 acres of land for a proposed Barack Obama University of Leadership and Technology was lost in the din of corporate accolades.
What excites Auma Obama’s community project is offers from abroad, such as that from Yale University for a programme on emotional intelligence. “Hey, hey, Yale University is looking at us,” Auma said, with hardly a word about Nicholas Rajula, the Nyangoma-K’ogelo community spokesman and his plans of turning Siaya Agricultural Training Centre into a constituent college of the proposed Barack Obama University, as reported by the Nation on the eve of the launch.
Auma Obama’s project is not novel, it seems. It is underpinned by a vertical relationship of accountability between the director of the project and the donors/sponsors/partners. It is a supply-driven project in the name of development made popular by NGOs, which thrived in the gaps left by the state and market failures, especially among the Luo, after the onslaught of neoliberalism in the 1990s. The combined effect of this NGO model of development and the sell-out politics of gonya gonya is a generation of youth who’ve refused or are reluctant to earn their keep, and who are often found loitering and shooting the breeze by the roadside or sitting in betting dens days on end.
Auma describes Sauti Kuu as “a space” – abstract postmodern speak which suggests that centre’s potential is multiple yet still undefined by any particular activity, product or character. If and when it becomes a place, one hopes it will not only be defined by excellence in sports and vocational training, but also by the kind of education that can reproduce a Barack Obama Sr., whose agnostic but liberal critique of Kenya’s development “Bible”, “Problems Facing Our Socialism: Another Critique of Sessional Paper no. 10”, stands vindicated by the return of Sauti Kuu-like initiatives to the countryside 55 years after Kenya’s independence, ostensibly as a solution to unemployment, slums, economic inequality and rural-urban migration.
If Barack Obama’s winning political identity was partly constructed by successfully dropping radical black politics and leftist imaginations that connected black resistance against oppression worldwide and partly by enmeshing his autobiography with the American Creed, as Aziz Rana says, then Auma Obama is constructing her political identity partly by spurning Luo patriarchs and Kenya’s toxic ethnic politics as well as by championing a conservative creed: hard work, individual responsibility and self-reliance.
Still, Sauti Kuu will have to contend with the fact, to paraphrase Barack Obama Sr., that economic issues cannot be divorced from the political-social-cultural context in which we find ourselves.