Barack Obama's Homecoming: A Rallying Call for Embracing Indigenous African Cultural Values

Barack Obama’s well-publicized identification with his African roots makes a good reference for drawing attention to the need for people of African descent to embrace the indigenous African Cultural values that have been at the receiving end of constant bashing, stereotypes and stigmatization in recent times.

Obama’s rise to power is an inspiring story for many African-Americans; one with reverberating effects that’ll outlive his time as president. Yet, that source of inspiration is not limited to Americans alone. It’s been and remains a source of pride for Kenyans and Africans especially given his identification with the continent. Consequently, it raised the expectations of some on the continent with regards to substantive policies compared to his predecessors. No doubt, wishful thinking given such expectations overlook his primary responsibilities as American president are chiefly geared towards America's interests. 

Despite that, the sense of identification and expectations by Africans has not waned. Instead, it has become a highlight in the weeks leading up to his first State visit to Kenya for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. Since the announcement of his impending visit, the media has been awash with stories covering various issues affecting the continent and expectations of the most powerful ruler in the world towards addressing them. These stories have mainly dwelled on economic development and security contexts feeding a long list of debates and commentaries on social media.

Yet, with all this coverage, I wonder if somehow, African Cultural advocates like myself can also tap into this unfolding trend of Obama’s homecoming to highlight important perspectives to Obama’s passionate affiliation with his roots; the need for Africans on the continent and Diaspora to further embrace their Cultures with pride.

The context to my piece is taken from Nick Fagge’s story in the Daily Mail which does a good job on the subject. In his piece titled, “Idhi Nadi: How Barack Obama’s grandmother hopes he will greet her in her native language if he visits on first state visit to Kenya”, Nick provides interesting insights on Obama’s identification with his Luo lineage by highlighting relationships with his paternal family from the perspective of his grandmother, Sarah Obama.

It makes for some interesting points on the broader issues as follows:

  • (1) That President Obama, wife and daughters have all learnt to express simple phrases in Luo further underscore his identification with his roots regardless of his upbringing in America. Going all the way to encourage Michelle Malia and Sasha to embrace the Luo language is testament to his pride in the culture. Perhaps, it’s also a direct contrast to many Africans who have a distorted perception on the value of our native African languages. In many instances, I’ve seen the association of these native languages with everything from being bushy to a relic that has little value in today’s world especially when taken from an economic point of view. While the latter may seem to score more points in our globalized world from a theoretical angle, there’s no denouncing the equally cultural importance of any native language to a people.

  • (2) President Obama’s dedication to learning the Luo language even as an adult shows the ability to pick up our native languages even after missing his formative years to easily learn as a kid. It shows further that the primary factor on learning is rooted in willpower and choice. Certainly, it comes with the level of value attached to the language from an individual point of view.

  • (3) The emotion that he packs into his open expression at his inability to communicate directly with his grandma during his first Kenyan visit in the 80s shows to what extent, native languages impact communication in many remote villages in Africa. The pain felt by grandma Sarah at his assertion highlights the pain expressed by many older adults of grandma Sarah's generation when younger generations lose the important elements of their cultures in the name of obscure reasons. It also touches on an awkward feeling that comes with a lack of understanding of one’s root; one that is very much a key part of our cultural identity. And following his eventual learning, her response beams of the pride that comes with associating with these cultures among locals.

  • (4) On the difficulty of finding time to learn the Luo language in the United States, it raises the need for our native African languages to evolve, leveraging technology to serve the needs of many with little human interference as we’ve seen with major Western languages.

  • (5) Regarding Obama’s repeat visit to the continent, there’s a need to shed light on the fact that the continent is home to a host of religious faiths that are found in places like Latin America. Hence, these traditional African faiths and heritage sites make the continent a Mecca or some sort, a little less mention in the face of the media’s fascination with conflict zones. A good analogy to this is the deep-roots of the Candomblé of Brazil to the Yoruba culture of Africa.

  • In conclusion, Obama's legacy makes for interesting contexts beyond America. His laudable actions in identifying with his African roots make for a good reference concerning our attitude towards various aspects of African Cultures. It’s one that Africans on the continent and Diaspora can learn from.

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