In Kenya, as in US, adjusted expectations for Obama

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President Obama meets supporters during a campaign rally Florida on Sunday. Obama can still draw large crowds, but enthusiasm for his presidency has waned both at home and abroad. (Photo from REUTERS/Jason Reed)

At the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2010, Obama joked about his abysmal approval ratings:

“My approval ratings are still very high in the country of my birth.”

At the time, it was a funny quip about the far right’s insistence that Obama was actually born in Kenya.

But now election day is looming, and approval ratings are no longer a joke.

American approval of Obama has dropped 19 percentage points since his election. But this drop is also reflected in his—ahem—his father’s country of birth.

According to a BBC World Service Poll, Kenyan support of Obama in favor of the Republican candidate has dropped from 87 to 66 percent since the last election. Even crazier, more Kenyan’s said they supported Mitt Romney than in any other country surveyed.

“I think we looked up to him too much… we adored him too much,” Rosemary Ahono, a Kenyan citizen who admits her admiration for Obama has lessened over time. “When he visited Ghana we were so bitter, we expected the first country he’d come to in Africa would be Kenya.”

At home, Obama faced an uphill battle to prove his ‘Americaness,’ something that all too often has come to mean being white with family roots all deeply planted into American soil. The ongoing ‘birther’ conspiracy theories are proof that the fight to define what is ‘American’ continues raging.

Obama meets supporters during a campaign rally in Hollywood, Florida on Sunday. (Photo from REUTERS/Jason Reed)

Ever since hitting the campaign trail, Obama has distanced himself from his Kenyan father in an attempt to connect with white, middle class swing voters.

“I know in his heart he’d really love to be here but his rivals would use it against him, it would have been as good as sabotage,” Paul Onditi, a Kenyan visual artist told me of Obama’s failure to visit or ever engage directly with Kenya since he was elected.

Like in the United States, Kenyan’s disillusionment has as much to do with inflated expectations as anything. For many Kenyans, Obama’s election signaled everything from free green cards for Kenyans to a direct phone line from Nairobi to the White House.

Now many Kenyans feel that things are no different from how they were four years ago.

I first came to Kenya in 2009, shortly after Obama’s inauguration. I was studying abroad and I had left the United States in a cloud of national pride and excitement. Suddenly I loved telling people where I was from and watching their faces light up as they exclaimed “America! The land of Obama!” I’d grin and nod my head vigorously. It was a far cry from the summer before when I backpacked through Europe and would try to change the subject as soon as possible when my nationality came up.

I remember walking to class in 2009 and having a man almost almost topple out of his car window to holler “Obamaaaaaaa!” when he saw me. Shifting the books I had almost dropped in surprise, I laughed and waved as his car was swallowed up by Nairobi’s downtown traffic.

The first time a Kenyan introduced themselves to me as “Obama’s cousin”, I was appropriately enthused. By the seventy-fifth time, I only nodded my head and smiled at the affinity the entire country felt for an American man born in Honolulu.

Towards the end of my stay, I made the pilgrimage to Kogelo, the remote, sleepy town where Obama’s father grew up. I sat next to two chubby, eager American tourists and watched Obama’s already exhausted grandmother describe attending the inauguration of a man she barely knew but who had changed her life forever.

A Kenyan-American delegation from Boston made the pilgrimage to Obama’s inauguration in 2009. (Photo from Flickr/LauraRush)

The reverberations of that inauguration were felt worldwide and nowhere as much as in The United States and Kenya.

The village youth who proudly showed me around their hometown that day each had a shine in their eyes that I recognized. It was the same shine in the eyes of my peers back at my women’s college in Pennsylvania the night Obama was elected.

It was a shine that said things were going to be different, that who we were and what we cared about now mattered.

That was what was magical about that moment, all of these disparate populations who had felt cast-aside for so long suddenly felt represented.

Its been four years and I’m still in Kenya. I’ve lived abroad for a great deal of Obama’s presidency and this election feels distant in a way it didn’t before.

In some ways I’m disillusioned, but in other ways I know that the significance of his presidency is lost in our sound bite driven, hyper-polarized world.

In both countries, Obama’s continued supporters seem to be those who’d always been careful to temper their expectations.

“The poor boy didn’t stand a chance with everything that was expected of him,” Paul told me of the hype surrounding his election.

Gor Soudan a Kenyan writer, says he’s focusing on the small improvements:

“It is better now. The way he talks about African countries is less patronizing than it used to be with other American presidents – less like we’re children.”

Of course, Kenya has its own impending elections to think about, which are currently scheduled for March. They will be the first since the bloody, contested election in 2007. So some, like Paul, have already shifted their focus away from the US to their own domestic affairs,

“As Kenyans, we have our own expectations of politicians to worry about.”

Abby Higgins is a travel writer and journalist who splits her time between Kenya and her hometown in Washington State. She speaks French and Swahili and received her BA in Political Science from Bryn Mawr College. In addition to writing, she has spent the past three years working in development and women’s rights in East Africa. You can read more of her writing at abbyhiggins.com.

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