“Obama don’t leave us” and the Kampala Marathon

You may be wondering how these two topics in the title are related. You will know by the end of this post. I will start with the Kampala 1/2 marathon which I ran with my friends Jesper and Chris. We trained for a few weeks (literally 2-1/2 for Jesper and me) and then ran on Sunday, November 23 with thousands of other people divided among a 10K, 1/2 marathon, and full marathon (http://mtnkampalamarathon.com/).

Talk about hilly! Although one can only train on the hills, 13.1 miles of a hilly course at 1000m certainly challenges a flatlander’s body. There were few expats running it overall, we thought. I mean, c’mon, I was the 3rd American to finish the 1/2 marathon – that is not because I am fast! Many runners wore tattered shoes and untypical running clothes.  At the end there was a huge after party with sponsored tents all around. Ugandans won the top awards in all categories, especially exciting for them because of the famed success of the Kenyan runners. I had fun running the race and enjoyed the challenge and seeing different parts of Kampala, some new to me.

Now the link to Obama. As Ugandans cheered people the runners, I constantly had “Obama, yea!” yelled at me while I was running. Actually, it was astounding. I would smile back or high five the people, more just to be engaging. There was something celebrity-esque to it. Americans abroad in most places are undoubtedly experiencing celebrity status as the world celebrates Obama’s election — there were only 5 countries officially supporting McCain. Yet, there are many dimensions to this election.

I stopped counting after literally 2 dozen times people cheered me on with something related to president-elect Obama. There was a key moment, though. At one point, I passed 2 Ugandans running and they said to me, Obama don’t leave us.

Obama don’t leave us, indeed. This line summarizes something in the air here. Since I arrived in August, Obama has been on the lips of everyone. No, I mean that literally. On the bus to Kigali, Rwanda someone was reading The Audacity of Hope in front of me. On the street DAILY pre-election, Obama’s name would appear in conversation. Many cars here have bumper stickers like “Obama/Biden ’08”. People wore Obama t-shirts. My co-workers would talk about it with me almost daily. One of my neighbors had a “Ugandans for Obama” bumper sticker. Boda boda drivers still say OBAMA! as a greeting to me on the street. Catholic, Muslim, Pentecostal – Obama! everywhere. While some people were using the word “elitist” to make Obama look unaccessible or different to Americans in the US, some of the most nonelite people in the world cheered him on from here.

I would speak with drivers, people on the street, and others who would have an analysis of the US election beyond some Americans I knew, including myself at times. One of the drivers at the project for example – I don’t think he has secondary level education – stayed up all night for all the debates and offered analysis of all the candidates that often left me amazed because of its comprehensiveness and thoughtfulness, all coming from a non-American.  Did I know that much about Ugandan politics?

At dinner one night, my Dutch roommates and I went out with some Ugandan adult friends. We talked American politics and Obama most of the time – definitely not by my choice. Even when I tried to veer the conversation away from Obama, it always came back to Obama and Bush and passionately so. (My European friends often had to deal with Obama conversations that started when someone saw me as an American. They graciously allowed them to continue, even when I knew it wasn’t as important to them as we later discussed.) More than Obama, the broader vision of America the Ugandans I have spoken with has opened my eyes to some new foreign interpretations and ideals of what America stands for to them.

Celebrity status indeed. But as with many things there is a Janus-face to such popularity.

The reasons Obama is so liked here are plentiful. He has a lineage relationship with Luo tribespeople who are present in Kenya and Uganda, for example. He is part African and a leader and example by extension to many in the African diaspora of countries around the world, a diaspora with a horrific history and endless struggle globally. He offered a new type of international relations method, not original, but unseen for many years by the world. He has the potential to challenge African leaders in a way a non-African may not be able to do, and there is hope (where there is not pessimism) that many African leaders are feeling precarious at the very least. Obama, many here believe, will not pat “democratic” or otherwise undemocratic dictators on the back like predecessors have. But what else?

The local papers wrote ad nauseum about what an Obama presidency may or may not mean for Ugandans. I will summarize the obsession in three points from what I can surmise, though there are more: (1) his obvious roots in East Africa; (2) the potential challenge he’ll be to East African dictator democracies; (3) and unfortunately because of how they experience politics, some people think America is going to throw all sorts of “goodies” to this region now. Open the Treasury floodgates.

Let me unpack (3) a bit. I have spoke with Ugandans and expats alike about this one. Because of his relationship with the region, some people think/thought Obama will/would provide Deliverance…in the form of aid and direct structural improvements. Some people wrote about it in the papers, while others warned against such a belief.

The economic crisis in the USA does not seem (as far as I can tell) to translate here in Uganda, so its obvious priority to Americans is not really appreciated. While Uganda is rising economically (and with increasing wealth disparities at the same time), many people here are always in some way in an economic crisis like every other country in this region, crisis meaning inadequate employment and weak political/social/economic/legal/health rights and nonexistent safety nets. So in one way they understand the economic crisis more than most Americans ever will. But at the same time an economic crisis is not conceivable or accessible here when American media exports show and inculcate a far more glamorous depiction of America. I am occasionally telling people that all of the US is not California or NYC wealth.

In a country where politics is intertwined with corruption and corruption translates into “goodies” for friends of a corrupt politician, I offer one lens of many at play that makes the expectation for “goodies” understandable. Some regional authors discussed this in op-ed pieces. Kenyans were happy for many reasons, but in some regions some people were especially happy because of the expectation for goodies. Obama’s constituents, to some here, are the world’s left behind. Talk about a populist spin on corruption! Simply put.

Hopefully, Obama will show the world that the corruption-handouts/goodies relationship is not the status quo; he is not Robinhood. Relatedly, Illinois Governor Blagoyevich’s resignation would be another beacon of democracy, one to inspire hope that the world is what we make it and that corruption is not always hopeless or tolerated.

Obama don’t leave us. Whether or not they should say it, that line is palpable in the air: among Americans losing jobs and watching benefits drop in the media I read from here, among those in neglected conflict areas of the world, among the disenfranchised in Uganda. Such immense pressure on our country and one person makes me nervous, despite my personal sense of immense hopefulness and change this election can bring. My precariousness aside, my time here at this point in time has humbled me given my affiliation as an American. And while trite, I continue to realize all those great things most of us realize we take for granted at some point as Americans. Yet, I know we can be ever more the beacon. It continues abroad, but it will need to be restarted at home. Ahem, health care reform for example. But I digress!

So in summary to a potentially much longer post, it’ll be interesting to watch the new dawn of international relations…. and expectations.

Picture from Chris Deal at our expat all night election viewing party: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_z5E_4idIFXI/SRxYUFjDQ8I/AAAAAAAACZE/qkWH6LTOYAA/s1600-h/11-10-08+251.jpg. (The concession/acceptance speeches occurred slightly before 8AM local time.)

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One Response to ““Obama don’t leave us” and the Kampala Marathon”

  1. automotive jacks Says:

    I have to say, that I could not agree with you in 100%, but it’s just my IMHO, which indeed could be very wrong.
    p.s. You have a very good template for your blog. Where have you got it from?

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