The theatre surrounding President Obama’s arrival in Nairobi illustrated why the man is one of the more gifted politicians of our time.
He didn’t walk out of Air Force One after it plunged down from the sky shortly after 8 pm, catching waiting photographers by surprise.
He bounded down the stairs at pace, like an excited toddler returning to the comforts of home after a long day at school.
He lingered in his greetings with the little girl on hand to receive him, Joan Wamaitha, and went on to pose for a photo with her.
When he was introduced to the line of waiting officials, he didn’t just shake their hands and move on but instead spent a few seconds to chat with each.
Then there was the moment that differentiated this from his other trips around the world, the hug with his sister Auma Obama which stole the headlines.
It used to be said that Bill Clinton was a political genius because his magnetism was such that he could make everyone in a crowded room feel as though he was looking at and speaking only to them.
Obama clearly has some of that gold dust, too.
The moment of his arrival in Kenya, historic though it is, will pass and be forgotten soon enough. One way to make this trip endure in the minds of young Kenyans, beyond trade deals and financing for young entrepreneurs, is to help them learn from the Obama story and the remarkable tale of the rise of the family in one generation, from K’Ogelo to State House.
Obama’s first book, Dreams From My Father, is one of the best books written about Kenya.
It was published before Obama joined politics, meaning it is marked by a honesty and depth not normally associated with books by politicians.
Including it as a set book in high school would offer students a powerful chance to see Kenya through the eyes of a man who came here to find his roots, clearly loves the country, but also has strong feelings about the shortcomings that hold the country back from achieving greatness.
Obama’s tone is not that of those who seek to lecture Africans like little children. In fact, he laments the “utter lack of self-consciousness” of the typical tourist happy to pass judgement on locals, feeling they were expressing “a bedrock confidence in their own parochialism, a confidence reserved for those born into imperial cultures”.
But he also writes powerfully about the problem of ethnicity and how it holds the continent back. His discussion of the subject with his aunts in 1987 shows how little has changed since.
“Most Kenyans still worked with older maps of identity, more ancient loyalties. Even (my aunts) Jane or Zeituni could say things that surprised me … Hearing my aunts traffic in stereotypes I would try to explain the error of their ways. ‘It’s thinking like that that holds us back,’ I would say. ‘We are all part of one tribe. The black tribe. The human tribe.”
Most countries use the public school system to inculcate a culture of patriotism and love for their country which then serves as the springboard to the pursuit of national goals.
Young Chinese, Japanese, South Koreans grow up learning in school that theirs is the greatest country on earth and that they should treasure and nurture it. The Americans do the same with their endless displays of flags and daily recitation of the pledge of allegiance to their country in schools.
In Kenya, there is no attempt to use the school system in that way. The Obama family story, narrated beautifully in his book, is one that should be known to more Kenyans and which would only enrich the curriculum.
The school system alone can’t heal the divisions in society but it has a role to play to arrest the disturbing trend which sees high school students fighting along ethnic lines as recently reported and university student election campaigns being fought along strictly ethnic lines.
Of course, it is the politicians who deepen ethnic divisions more than anyone else. But let students read the Obama book and explore deeply the question of what it means to be a citizen not imprisoned to identity and in time there might be an electorate that can vote for leaders who seek to improve the lot of their people above all else.