This is the Kenya I knew when I spent two years there, from 1992 to 1994, working with the Jesuit Refugee Service. Of course it’s wrong to generalize about a people or a country, and Kenya encompasses men, women and children from a stunning variety of ethnic backgrounds speaking dozens of indigenous languages (most also speak Swahili and English), but perhaps positive generalizations are okay. Nearly to a person, the Kenyan men and women I knew were warm, welcoming, friendly, upbeat, clever, playful, helpful, and, most of all, hopeful. I adored living there, loved working and living among them, and enjoyed learning Swahili (and even a little Maasai)…For Kenyans the visit of President Obama, a man with deep Kenyan roots, is of enormous significance and a cause for celebration.
Family is of inestimable significance for Kenyans, and nearly everyone knows what tribe you’re from, and the location of your family’s shamba (loosely translated as “farm” but a larger word meaning homeland). It’s especially easy for Kenyans to figure out what ethnic group Barack Obama hails from. He is obviously a Luo, as evidenced by the “O” that begins his last name. Luo names are ones like Odhiambo, Omondi, Okello, Onyango, Otieno. When I living in Kenya, the Jesuit vocation director for East Africa was a florid-faced, white-haired, Irishman named Sean O’Connor who, like me, loved his adopted country. Sean loved to joke with the East Africans when they asked where he was from, that of course he was a Luo. “Can’t you tell from my name?” he would say. “It’s Oconnor, after all.” During the president’s trip to Kenya, I hope that the media covers the following: the way that Kenyans often make do with so little; the way that they are able to live among a welter of cultures and languages; the stunning beauty of their land; their deep pride in their heritage; their great love of country. So with my friends (marafiki) in Kenya, I say to the President, “Karibu Kenya, Rais Obama!”