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Obama, a son of Africa, speaks in Ghana

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Pounding fufu (boiled cassava, a staple food) in a small village in central Ghana. Most of the people in this area grow cocoa and make a decent living, but in other parts of the country a large percentage of the population live on less than $1 a day. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.
Pounding fufu (boiled cassava, a staple food) in a small village in central Ghana. Most of the people in this area grow cocoa and make a decent living, but in other parts of the country a large percentage of the population live on less than $1 a day. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.

Barack Obama made his first trip to Africa as President of the United States, and his speech last week in Accra was the talk of Africa and much of the world. When we looked at it here in the office, a colleague said to me, “It’s almost as if Obama works for Oxfam.” He worked through a number of Africa’s challenges and many of his recommendations were aligned with those Oxfam makes on the same issues.

But the speech was also interesting for another reason: It’s always hard for someone from the US to confront Africans about problems on their continent. And even though Obama’s father is from Kenya not everyone was open to his suggestion that, although colonialism was unjust, Africa needs to move on. Obama did not specifically confront the trade in slaves that devastated so many communities, and one human rights activist in Nigeria in particular said he was talking down to Africans, and demanded compensation from America for slavery.  He’s probably not the only one who rejected Obama’s call to stop laying blame for Africa’s problems on others.

On the subject of governance, a long-standing topic of discussion on the continent, Obama was critical of some African leaders, especially those who change their country’s constitution to stay in power longer. Will Ross wrote in his article for the BBC “Tough love from a brother” that this “denunciation of Africa’s ‘strong men’ will have made a few leaders squirm in their presidential palaces.” That some of these strong men are US allies made this a bold statement.

How you feel about Obama’s speech will depend, like most things in life, on where you sit. If you had told me two years ago that the president of the United States would make a speech in Ghana and talk about his father herding goats in a small village in Kenya, and tell the audience that “I have the blood of Africa within me, and my family’s own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story,” I never would have believed it.

He also told the people of Africa that the future is theirs to decide, that each country develops democracy in its own way, and that “America will be with you every step of the way — as a partner, as a friend.” I sincerely hope America can live up to this pledge.

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  1. rege6@neuf.fr'Véronique de La Brosse Regea

    An Oxfam staff member feeling ‘’almost’’ as if Obama is working for them is a warning signal for aid people. Obama stands at the top of the military superpower in a world which is not doing well. He is surrounded by people who have contributed to that state of affairs. He is already playing his part by escalating the NATO war in Afghanistan, and the proxy war in Pakistan. Political seduction might sadly end up again, sometime, somewhere, in shoe flying. Serious-minded aid workers must keep their distance.
    Obama addresses Africa as a president of the United States who is the son of an African and the husband of an Afro-American. To Africa indeed he is an African who managed to become the US president. No word can match that fact. It enchants any word he so far pronounces _ fascination of power multiplied by the yes we can factor. Having a Kenyan father puts him on high ground to denounce colonialism; but colonialism is a past nuisance. The issue now is neo-colonialism. As for Afro-Americans, their relationship to Africa is stained with ambiguity. Africa is a mother who lost them in unclear circumstances: did she sell them out, or were they dragged away from her, did she long for them or did she choose to forget them? One thing Africa does not really forget nor forgive is the stigma of slavery. Descendants of slaves remain apart whatever their achievements, because at some point their ancestry line was disrupted.
    It is also the case with Westerners. That’s why democracy seems easy for them: they only have the living to care about, they only have the present. But one who was born accountable to a whole line of dead is bound to see life differently. The whites used to have ancestors but democracy and the market made them forgetful. They had to become equal so as to be interchangeable assets in the games of politics and capital.
    Africa reluctantly tolerates equality and the anonymity which comes with it. Africans want to remain persons with links rather than become untied individuals. Or else, they would like to have it both ways; enjoy the so-called freedoms and keep the roots. So successful Afro-Americans inspire them but silent distance.
    Maybe for Africa as well it is time to confront its own crimes. One of them is female circumcision. Talibans are declared cultural enemies for condemning women to life invisibility, what about the millions of girls who are being mutilated in many parts of Africa? Another crime _on the increase_ is polygamy which is devastating countless lives along with its by-products, child marriage, forced marriage, marital abuse… The largest war currently raging on in Africa is the gender war. It is as asymetrical and ugly as any other, even though it is fought in the privacy of the home. Until an equitable peace settlement is achieved and female dignity is restored, the spillovers of that conflict will continue to undermine the foundations of good governance.

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