In December 2007, writer Andrew Sullivan proposed a hypothetical to illustrate Barack Obama's power to change perceptions of America abroad. "A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America," wrote Sullivan. "In one simple image, America's soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy." There is too much of the world in Obama's identity for the international community to continue hating a country Obama leads, Sullivan argued.
Since Sullivan wrote those words, the idea that Obama can transform America's image has become a truism so obvious it is almost a cliché. But while traveling recently in eastern Africa—Tanzania and Kenya—I found that the prospect of an Obama win still inspires hope and excitement. There is palpable interest in the US presidential race. And Obama generates widespread support not only because he is African American, but also because he is regarded as someone who can make the United States a trustworthy figure in the international sphere again. Eastern Africans believe Obama will turn America into a superpower that deals honestly and respectfully, protecting its own interests while also serving the interests of others. Obama likes to say that as president he will go to other countries of the world and say, "America's back." Many Africans appear to take him at his word.
The enthusiasm for Obama in Tanzania and Kenya may have something to with geography. Most African Americans trace their roots to West or West Central Africa. Obama's lineage comes from the Luo tribe, which is based in the Eastern African nations of Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. As a result, many people in those countries take an almost paternal pride in Obama and his success, and pay close attention to his bid for the White House.
That attention is not just among the elite. Stopping for diesel in a Tanzanian town of a few thousand, my brother wandered into a small store selling T-shirts. The shopkeeper saw his shirt, which said "BAM" on the front, and, momentarily thinking it said "Obama," offered to trade any shirt in the shop for it. The value of the offer decreased considerably when the translation was cleared up. In the same town, we came across a man pushing a cart full of trinkets. On the side of the cart was a handwritten sign that said "OBAMA IS."
"You like Obama?" I asked him. Very much, he said.
"Why?" I asked. He shrugged and said, "Better for the world." Local boys that sold some of his goods for him wandered up as we were chatting. "Obama?" I asked them.
"Obama," they confirmed, nodding. "Obama."
I pointed at the sign on the cart. "Obama is what?" None of the boys understood the question. Like many Kenyans and Tanzanians, their interaction with Westerners seemed to incorporate enthusiasm for Obama and little else. The owner of the cart said, "Obama is..." He stopped to think. "You tell me," he said.