By Marc Fisher
Sunday, November 9, 2008
The first time she saw Barack Obama, Alice Mukabane knew. "You see it right away," she says, "the qualities of a Kenyan. His firmness reminds me of the people back home who, when they say, 'We want,' they get. And his humbleness -- our people are very humble."
"He's a good listener, like Kenyans," adds her husband, William, who, with Alice, runs Safari DC, the Washington area's only Kenyan restaurant.
More than any other politician of his generation, President-elect Obama is a vessel for the aspirations of people who otherwise have little in common. Black Americans listen to him and hear the cadences and promise of the church. Young people see an open, flexible agent of social change. Folks who are skeptical of government latch onto Obama's stern calls for parental responsibility, even as those who expect more from Washington on, say, health care, hear promises of more paternalism.
Inside Safari DC on Georgia Avenue NW, naturally enough, immigrants from Kenya and other African countries see Obama as one of their own. Here, he is considered every bit as much Kenyan as he is Chicagoan or Hawaiian. That the next president has only visited his father's native land briefly and had only the most fleeting of relationships with his African parent is utterly irrelevant.
"We would pick him out on the street -- no question, a Kenyan," says William, who immigrated 31 years ago and opened this business in 1998 after college in Buffalo and a long series of jobs as a cook in Washington restaurants.
The back bar at Safari DC has been dubbed "Obama Corner," festooned with posters and photos of Barack and his wife, Michelle. CNN blares round-the-clock, and the customers at the bar flit from loud debates about foreign policy to playful gossip about the next first lady's clothing and child-rearing philosophy.
"I've learned a lot from Michelle," says Alice, who has two adult daughters, one a teacher in Kenya, the other a student at Montgomery College. "I've learned that your destination determines you. Most of our people, when someone insults your husband, you jump right on that person. That's where we mess up. I give Michelle great credit for that firm control, that example of standing behind your husband without bad words or anger."
It took William Mukabane many years to persuade his intended to come join him in the United States; she was wary of leaving a place where children knew they had to study hard and carry their share of the domestic workload, to come to a place where it seemed that children thought of themselves as their parents' equals.
"We believe in disciplining kids," Alice says. "Back there, my neighbor could cane me if I'm a child doing something wrong, and that's fine with my mother. Here, that's going over the line. Here, children take what they have for granted. With Obama, I believe he understands responsibility and work. That's how he got to where he is. If anyone else was going 10 miles, he had to go 15 miles."
The Mukabanes realize that despite accolades that border on hero worship, Obama cannot possibly do even a quarter of what many hope he'll accomplish.
"Everyone's expectations are so high," William says. "It's going to take time."
The restaurateurs hope the new president might want a taste of his ancestral home. "I'll make him a salmon," Alice says, "grilled and seasoned with African spices that we bring back from Kenya. Or a baked tilapia," the kitchen's special, smothered in onions, tomatoes, cilantro and spices.
The couple would tell the first family about their own transformation into Americans, about Alice's belief that "no matter what you want to do, you can do it here if you work hard and if you handle yourself right. It's not just work -- you will get nowhere if you don't understand that you have to also deny yourself some things, some pleasures, and open yourself to other people. That's how your dreams come true in America, and that's how Obama made it, too."
Presidents collect political capital not by winning everyone over to their policies, but through the ineffable process of getting people of differing, even opposing views to believe that this leader knows them -- that somehow, he is theirs.
On that score, Obama has an almost ridiculous head start -- not only at home, where he has transformed millions of alienated Americans into optimists, but around the world.
Europeans speak of him as a restoration of the American ideal. Muslims are confronted head-on with an American social and political mobility that they've long been told doesn't really exist.
And in Kenya, where Thursday was declared a national holiday in honor of Obama, the president-elect is now the ultimate local-kid-made-good.
"The older generation is struggling to understand," Alice says. "But the younger people are coming together with different tribes, intermarrying, not seeing color. Judge people as they behave, not as they dress. Welcome them for who they are and you might be surprised."