Cartooning Obama: What Does Obama Mean to Kenyans?
On 24th August 2015, under the hum of security helicopters, Kenyan cartoonists and their fans came together to examine the legacy of the Obama presidency in relation to Kenya. The US President was in Nairobi for a three day official visit as part of the official programme of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. Although Obama has always been adored in Kenya, the relationship has definitely soured since his 2008 election after which it became apparent that Kenya would get no preferential treatment from the US because of the Obama connection. Kenyan editorial cartoonists came together at PAWA 254, a collaborative arts space near State House where Obama would be dining during his visit, to unpack the nuances of this relationship in that unique way only visual arts can.
This exhibition brought together some of Kenyans foremost editorial cartoonists – including Godfrey GADO Mwapembwa, Kham, Victor Ndula, Celeste and Paul MADD Kelemba. From a vast trove of published and unpublished cartoons, 87 were selected that best reflected the evolution of Obama’s standing in Kenya’s press – from beloved native son to somewhat beleaguered imperial power. The exhibition launch at PAWA 254 featured a discussion led by HBS staff on what Obama means for Kenyans today, in which participants affirmed that he is not as universally loved as the conventional press would have us believe.
The earlier cartoons emphasized the theme of hope, a slogan Obama himself campaigned on in 2006. These were not just the hopes of Kenya on a man they had embraced as their own, but also the hopes of a black nation that had witnessed the difficult racial dynamics of the US with an empathetic eye. Obama’s status as the first black president in the US certainly resonated strongly with Kenyans, and the cartoons reflected that.
These early cartoons also poked fun at Kenyans expectations now that Obama had been elected. Would we all get visas to the US? Would we all be bundled up on a plane and flown off to Washington DC? In so far as they made fun of the situation, the lighter themes of these cartoons also symbolize the atmosphere of hope and expectation of the time. Some of the cartoons also reflected the hope that Kenya could learn from what the US was doing by moving away from its legacy of racial strife to embrace a black man with a foreign father as president. They juxtaposed the US politics to Kenyan politics to show the shortfalls of the Kenyan system and the many ways in which it could be repaired.
However, with the indictment of both President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto at the International Criminal Court, the relationship between Kenya and the US soured. With an offhand “choices have consequences” remark, the then US ambassador signaled that should Kenyans choose to place Kenyatta and Ruto in office, there would be consequences for their foreign policy. Unfortunately, the ambassador seemed to have misread the tone in the country, as the votes indicated that in a tension between sovereignity and conforming to international expectations, Kenyans would choose sovereignty.
Similarly, a growing consciousness on the impact of Obama the president is reflected. Obama the man preached hope and understanding: Obama the president looked the other way at Israel’s military action in Palestine, while lecturing China on shielding North Korea from international action on its nuclear programme. The cartoonists did not shy away from poking at these complexities, showing the idiosyncrasies of the man and the president in great depth and nuance.
Its’ apparent that Obama is no longer as universally loved in Kenya as he was before, but he still remains more popular than most local populations, which perhaps accounts for the enormous expectations placed on his visit. Were these expectations met? That’s yet to be seen. What is clear is that on the weekend of his visit, the trending topics on social media platforms in Kenya wasn’t on his homecoming or on what he did while he was here. Rather it focused on the general media failure to adequately report and represent the visit – to critically engage with Obama’s legacy and standing in Kenya.
The cartoonist exhibition was therefore providing a critical conversation to Kenya’s public sphere, giving voice to concerns that were ill represented in conventional media. It has thus been covered extensively by local and international media including NTV, KBC, The BBC, Buzzfeed, and Vice News. After its initial one week run at PAWA 254, the exhibition moves to the Alliance Francaise exhibition space where it is hoped that more members of the public will engage with the questions its raising.