DES MOINES, Iowa — Now and then, I still ache from a couple of ribs I cracked when a stampede of men surrounded Sen. Barack Obama’s motorcade when it arrived at Kibera, a district in Nairobi, one of the worst slums in Kenya and maybe the world.
The driver of the press van slammed on the brakes when the mob lurched toward us, and I was thrown. It was an accident. The situation was not hostile, unlike today, when rioters since Sunday have been killing hundreds after a contested presidential election between Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga.
On that day in August 2006, the crowd was just eager to catch a glimpse of Obama.
The Kenya leg of Obama’s four-nation trip to Africa was the highlight because it was seen as a homecoming for the Illinois senator, whose father was Kenyan. Obama got his first taste of being treated by a nation as a hero. The upbeat press he got in the United States from the trip helped set the stage for his presidential bid.
Obama is in a good position to win the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses tonight, after an almost yearlong campaign in which his inexperience continued to be his major weakness. On foreign affairs, Obama argued that his judgment trumped his lack of resume.
He said his experience of living as a youth in Indonesia and having a blended family made him a figure who could reach out to the leaders of unfriendly Muslim nations, and therefore he was more qualified than chief rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Now Obama’s claim of personal diplomacy is being tested.
The arc of the moral universe Obama refers to so often — a line from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — now stretches from the United States to Kenya. What can he do — what will he do — that is more than the radio message for Voice of America’s Africa service he taped Wednesday, urging the Kenyans to stop the violence?
“Despite irregularities in the vote tabulation, now is not the time to throw that strong democracy away. Now is a time for President Kibaki, opposition leader Odinga, and all of Kenya’s leaders to call for calm, to come together, and to start a political process to address peacefully the controversies that divide them,” Obama said.
I saw how Kenyans adulated Obama. I met his half sister, Auma, who lives in Nairobi and who has been in Iowa campaigning for him.
I was there when Obama delivered a lecture on corruption intended for the ears of Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu tribe.
I watched Odinga, a Luo, as was Obama’s father, hover when Obama got an AIDS test with wife, Michelle, and then be part of the welcoming ceremony the day Obama visited his father’s homestead.
As Kenya boiled, Obama reached out to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss the situation. I’m told it was Obama’s idea to put out the statement.
I understand Obama has to be careful because while he is one of the most credible figures the United States has to deal with Kenya, the dispute between Odinga and Kibaki is mired in tribal politics. Obama, very aware that Kenyans may see him as a Luo in this context, does not want to be seen as taking sides.
But Obama’s claim of uniqueness is being offered as a reason he should be president. The Voice of America statement is a good first step. What’s next?
Obama can’t vote present on Kenya.