Five years on and the novelty hasn’t worn off: there’s a black man in the Oval Office. An African in the world’s most powerful job. And now he’s coming home. But for Barack Obama, this continent remains a foreign land, and the ocean between Africa and North America is as salty as any.
Welcome home, Barack.
It’s been a while. More than four years, in fact, since that speech in Accra when you told us that African blood runs in your veins and that your family’s story is, in many ways, a symbol of the greater African story (yes, we’ve been counting).
Now you’re back, returning to the land of your father, this time for six whole days. Although, strictly speaking, it’s not a homecoming; Obama senior was from Kenya, a country run by two men being tried for crimes against humanity, and we know there’s no way an American president can be seen in their company.
Never mind – you are in Africa, and that’s good enough for us (besides, we have grown accustomed to being treated as a single, homogenous landmass). And we will welcome you as one of our own, and celebrate your African roots, because who among us honestly thought that we would ever see a black man in the Oval Office, a son of this continent sitting in the world’s most powerful chair?
So President Jakaya Kikwete will embrace you as his African brother, President Zuma will salute a son of the same soil, and the crowds will cheer and ululate in your honour (except for those pesky students at the University of Johannesburg who just can’t seem to let go of the whole war and torture thing).
But I can’t shake the feeling that, no matter how inspiring your smile or how eloquent your speeches will be, all this adulation from our continent makes you uncomfortable. I bet that sometimes you wish you did not have to assume this African identity about which you know so little.
I can relate. My roots are also all tangled, my heritage mixed. Like you, I am torn between two continents, between two separate identities; and, having made my choice, I don’t like it when others assume that I am something else.
I have English blood in me, lots of it; enough to keep my skin resolutely pale in the shade and a painful red in the sunshine. There was a time, growing up, when I was proud of my English roots. My family kept many fine English traditions alive, from Sunday roasts to Fawlty Towers reruns, and I imagined that one day I would go to England and fit right in.
Instead, when I did finally go, I found the complete opposite; despite my cultural and linguistic familiarity, England was a foreign country with foreign customs, made all the more alienating by the fact that I looked and sounded like I should know my way around.
You know what happens to white South African men in England? They put on their tracksuit pants and warmest coat and braai (that’s barbeque in your lingo) in the cold, dreaming of warm days, cold beers and big African skies. They may speak English; they may look English; they may even qualify for a passport; but, once in England, they know they are strangers.
This is what coming to Africa must be like for you, Barack. Here are your people! If you weren’t the most famous man in the world, you’d be able to walk down the streets of Nairobi and no one would give you a second glance. You’ve got history here, even family. We are your brothers and your sisters.
But it’s not like that, is it? You look around, and recognise nothing. Whatever images of Kenya that you cherished as a boy, formed from your father’s old photos and letters, can’t possibly stand up to the modern reality. These aren’t your traditions, these aren’t the customs you grew up with. Ultimately, we are not your people.
In South Africa, there’s a word for my kind. Soutpiels, they call us. Salty dicks. Because we’ve got one foot in Africa and the other in England, leaving our dangly bits hanging in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite the vulgarity, there’s something very poetic about this insult, even if it’s not fair, exactly. Like you, I’ve made my choices, and they weren’t always easy. I’m not black, which means I have to constantly justify my African-ness; to explain why I belong here and nowhere else. This is especially difficult because I write about Africa for a living. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that my opinion doesn’t count because I’m not a real African (and maybe my critics have a point: if there is such a thing as an archetypal African experience, mine has been far from it).
I’ve seen you fight the same fight in America – because you’re different, because you’re so far from the norm with your black skin and Arab names, you’ve been forced to prove your American-ness over and over again (and it was still not enough for His Royal Trumpness).
Inevitably, proving my own identity means distancing myself from the one I have forsaken – those salty waters can get very uncomfortable. I’ve been known to overcompensate. I am the first to complain about the English weather, celebrate English sporting defeats (there are so many, it’s wonderful) and can be scathing in my contempt for those affectations which the English hold so dear, especially the Queen (“And they say Mugabe’s been in office too long,” I say frequently).
I wonder if you’re also overcompensating, and that’s why it’s taken so long for you to come back to Africa – and why you’ve given us so little attention during your presidency so far. Now, I understand that you’re a very busy man, but there’s got to be something wrong when your engagement with Africa doesn’t even pass the bar set by George W. Bush (not a president known for setting very high bars). “For a president who has failed to seize Africa’s many economic opportunities, the additional time spent there is still pathetic and embarrassing,” wrote Mwangi S. Kimenyi for Foreign Policy on Wednesday, and it’s hard to argue with this damning assessment.
Yours have not been the policies of a president who feels connected with Africa, who is personally invested in the continent’s future. Yours have not been the actions of man who feels that he belongs here, or even a man that feels a conflicted identity – or at least, not this particular conflicted identity. “My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t end there. At least that’s what I would choose to believe,” you wrote in Dreams from my Father, showing that you are more aware than most of what it means to define yourself, and how it’s done.
You’ve made your choice, and your soutpiel is firmly on dry American land – except, of course, when you actually visit us here and then you’re confronted again with all these difficult questions about your identity, and where you actually belong.
And that’s okay. There is no judgment here. Ultimately, you are the president of a country that is not in Africa. Your primary responsibility is to the citizens who elected you, not your African brothers and sisters who you barely know.
And it is our responsibility, as citizens of this continent, to remember this, and to stop expecting you to shoulder the burden of Africa’s hopes and dreams. We will welcome you here with open arms, but maybe it would be more comfortable – and honest – for everyone if we welcome you like the American that you are, instead of celebrating you as the African that you don’t really want to be. DM
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Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon