Monday, April 20, 2009

The Fight for Sarah Obama's Soul

I'm no partisan. Heck I don't even vote. But I can tell you that traveling in Kenya over the past couple of weeks, it has been a delight to see how delighted Kenyans are about Barack Obama. Out in Luoland in Western Kenya, there are signs pointing to his family's ancestral home. After interviewing a Luo elder, one of his wives who works as a seamstress brought me some Obama cloth and shirts featuring his face on a traditional African pattern. At a hip party in Nairobi yesterday, where the menu include plenty of Smirnoff vodka and a bit of goat-head soup, one of the guests was wearing an Obama t-shirt that featured a solemn image of the president and the words "Making history." As I travel around, faces light up whenever I mention I'm an American.

I never sensed much anti-Americanism during my years kicking around the continent for the Washington Post, but I often got the sense that Africans didn't regard the U.S. government as consistently on their side. The main exception was in the petro-state of Nigeria, where George W. Bush's Texas oilman style went down well.

Obama's election has changed the emotional/political chemisty to an amazing extent. The Kenyan papers are trying to outdo each other in trying to get the scoop on a possible Obama presidential visit. And the fascination with all things Obama extends even to the soul of his sort-of grandmother, Sarah Hussein Obama, a Muslim who almost, but not quite, converted to Christianity over the weekend.

Sarah Obama is the third wife of Obama's grandfather, making her, in the family tree of the Luo ethnic group, a "grandmother," even if not Obama's exact, direct grandmother (who was, instead, the second wife of his grandfather. Got that?) Being a dutiful son of Kenya, President Obama calls Sarah Obama "Granny Sarah," as he should. (She is second from the right, bottom row, in the picture, looking resplendent in this image of Barack Obama's Kenyan family.)

The story, as told by Kenya's Nation newspaper, is that the Seventh Day Adentist church, which has sunk deep roots in Luoland over a century of energetic missionary work, managed to convince Sarah Obama to renounce Islam in favor of Jesus Christ. Her Kenyan relatives, however, stepped in before the baptism could take place. The Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya endorsed her family's blocking maneuver in a statement yesterday: “Mama Sarah should not be forced by anybody to join Christianity since she is a Muslim. Conversion must take place in a voluntary manner,” a group spokesman said.

Seems reasonable enough to me, but I have a feeling this saga may not yet be over...

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