“Obama!” yells one man.
“Obama!” chimes in another
“Obama, Obama, Obama!!!” echoes a sympathetic third.
They are referring to me. As a 32-year-old white guy, this is a novelty. I am rarely mistaken for this particular president at home. I am much more accustomed to being hailed by people yelling “Arthur, Chester A. Arthur!” Hey, it happened once. I was wearing muttonchops.
I learn quickly enough that I have not been mistaken for our new president, but that “Obama” has become the catcall of choice for Ugandan vendors attempting to flag down Americans in Kampala.
This is a distinct improvement over the old catcall of choice “mzungu.” While, being called “mzungu,” which translates roughly as “white man” is technically more accurate than being called “Obama” it is distinctly less pleasant, at least if one is a Democrat.
Obama has replaced more than just epithets in Kampala. Teens who once wore shirts bearing the graven image of Tupac Shakur or David Beckham now sport Obamawear. Little shack restaurants now bear his name and visage. One restaurant, at the impossible tangle of microbuses that passes for Kampala’s main bus terminal, has chosen the name “Obama Take Away.” The eatery’s marquee shows the President looking confidently into the future, a future that, I presume from the sign, includes a plate of matoke, Uganda’s ubiquitous mashed plantains, and beans.
I am not sure what to make of it all. I am an Obama supporter. I voted for him in part because I believed that his election would change how the world sees America, but now I am face-to-face with the reality of that change. I can’t speak for the rest of the world but to Africans, at least, we are Obama and Obama is us.
On the face of it, this is a good thing. It is proof to the world that in the U.S. everyone not only has a place at the table but even has a shot at sitting at the head. It is proof that American exceptionalism means more than exceptionally powerful or exceptionally rich. Long oppressed and despised minorities do not get voted into power in other countries. Either they seize power, as did the Sunni in Iraq, or the Alewites in Syria, or they remain forever oppressed. We have proved we are different. Yes, we are exceptional.
Since November, I’ve had a wonderful time asking my French friends, who were rightly haughty not so long ago, if they remember that time when France elected a Muslim of Algerian descent President. It never happened? Huh. How about that?
Yet I worry about the Obamamania in Africa; I fear that he is being set up to fail.
The American relationship with Africa is not in a particular state of disrepair. In Christian Africa, the Bush years were not the diplomatic catastrophe they were in the rest of the world. While Africans are generally ecstatic over the election of Obama, many have kind words for Bush as well. Bush’s PEPFAR initiative has provided massive assistance to African nations in their efforts to halt the spread of HIV and provide drugs to those afflicted. Whereas Bill Clinton sided with drug companies at every turn, Bush actually put U.S. resources and prestige into fighting HIV in Africa. The program is not perfect, some of the prohibitions on family planning border on madness, but thousands of Africans received anti-retroviral medicines thank to George W. Bush and are alive as a result. I give the former president credit for almost nothing. He was incompetent, and I find most of his ideology revolting, but if asked to say two nice things about Bush, I would commend him first on PEPFAR and then on his ability to duck shoes. His reflexes are admirable.
Following a more or less successful Africa policy leaves Obama with less room to meet the lofty expectations. In military affairs, not starting a calamitous war will be a huge improvement. In economic affairs, reducing unemployment to 7 percent will be a success. But in Africa, he might actually have to accomplish something to claim victory.
I also worry that Africans, themselves might expect too much. One of the 16 people crammed into a microbus with me on a recent trip to Jinja, where the Nile begins its flow toward Egypt, became the first African I have met with harsh words for Obama.
The criticism came from Ken, a chatty, a very chatty fellow, who as is the Uganda custom, was practically sitting on my lap.
After showing me some videos of other times he has been in a minibus and attempting to persuade me to give him my $20 Casio digital watch, Ken, my seatmate offered a revelation.
“I don’t like Obama,” said Ken. “He’s selfish. Can I have your phone number?” Ken may not have liked Obama, but his distaste was not intense enough to hold his focus for more than 30 seconds.
This is why I worry. Obama can do a lot for Africa. He can support democracy, increase aid, facilitate trade and treat Africa nations with respect. What he cannot do, however, is make Africa as rich as America. And I worry that that is what people like Ken are hoping for.
Fortunately, I don’t think we actually have to make Africa as rich as the U.S. to win over guys like Ken because most Africans have no idea how rich America is. They know we are rich, but the level of difference is unimaginable. If we help them to get a little richer, if we can increase access to medicine, clean water and decent governments, if we take their concerns seriously, that will be enough, it will be more than anyone has done since Europe eviscerated the continent. But risks remain. If Obama does not give Africa some speck of his attention, if he does not improve on the humane HIV policies of the Bush Administration, then Ken will be right. Obama will have been selfish, and because, to the people here, Obama is us, we will have been selfish too.