Is Obama Turning His Back on Africa? the Kenyan Nationalist Tom Mboya and the African-American Icon Martin Luther King Jnr, Whose Memorials Were Inaugurated in October, 40 Years after Both Were Assassinated, Have One Thing in Common: Barack Obama. but the US President Failed to Make the Connection, Writes Peter Kimani

Article excerpt

TWO SEPAR A IE BUT distinctly connected events happened in October in Kenya and the USA. In fact, the historical parallels between them are eerie: two men, whose singular strength lay in the persuasion of their words, were both resurrected four decades after they were felled by assassins' bullets.

The Kenyan nationalist Tom Mboya was retrieved from history vaults to tower over a Nairobi street that now bears his name, in a life-size bronze monument - only metres away from the spot where he was killed in July 1969.

And in Washington DC, Martin Luther King Jnr's granite monument hovered in the National Mall, on the fringes of the spot where he delivered the epochal I Have A Dream speech, now a revered signpost in America's social and political evolution.

The import of these two events is not just underlined by their coincidences; Mboya and King's lives did often intersect, more so in the late 19SOS when they successfully launched what's now immortalised as the student airlift. Under this programme, some 800 Kenyan students were dispatched to American universities to acquire the skills badly needed to develop the newly independent Kenya. It was on the back of this airlift that the lather of President Barack Obama, Obama Senior, would arrive on American shores to seek education, and in the process find love that culminated in the birth of the 44th president of the United States.

In that sense, President Barack Obama is the common denominator in the histories of Tom Mbova and Martin Luther King.

Obama gave a lofty speech at the inauguration of Dr King's monument in Washington but made no reference to the Kenyan event, which came onlv days later, and which officials in Nairobi say Obama had been invited to inaugurate.

Obama's omission of the Kenya fete is understandable. Hounded by a hysterical right-wing media that routinely demands evidence to his American birth, Obama appears to cringe at every mention of his fatherland. In any case, he is the US president, and there are pressing matters to attend to on the home front.

Yet, this momentary lapse - even in speech - rather than providing a dramatic pause, is disrupting a continuous engagement between Africa and Black America, of which Mboya and King were mere purveyors of a long-established tradition.

From the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, which was spurred by the exodus of millions of blacks from the Jim Crow South, 1 hey turned to Africa to reaffirm their pride as human beings after centuries of subjugation.

Half a century later, another cycle of interest would start about Africa in the 1950s and 1960s and the Black Power revolution when civil rights movements in the US found traction with liberation struggles in Africa. This was the time Mboya and King's lives intersected. Both men had the gifts of rhetoric that they used from different pedestals: King had the pulpit; Mboya had the august House, having won a parliamentary seat in Nairobi, a metropolis then reeling from the colonial order that designated employment, residence and even suffrage rights according to the colour bar.



Hailing from Mbita Island, a poor hamlet near Lake Victoria, Mboya had grown up near the small industrial town immortalised in Elspeth Huxley's book, The Flame Trees of Thika.

While a water inspector with the Nairobi City Council, Mboya is reputed to have riled a white official who went calling at work. Upon enquiring why nobody (implying white officers) was in the office, Mboya memorably responded: "What's wrong with your sight? Can't you see me?"

The 1990s was yet another time when Black America turned to Africa - educationists of the time thought it would be useful to inspire more confidence in African-American students by having them learn more about the continent from whence their ancestors came. …


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