Wangari Maathai, trustee emerita of World Learning, comments on the US election in the Guardian (November 6, 2008).
The US has truly overcome. And the world is joining in
This moment of pure greatness will prove an inspiration not just for Africa’s young people, but for our leaders too
This morning I am going to Uhuru Park in Nairobi to plant a tree. A plaque on it will read: “This was planted to mark the moment Barack Obama was elected president of the United States of America.” It will stand next to the tree that Obama planted when he visited last year, and will be a lasting testament to this historic moment: a wonderful thing for America and the world.
Across Kenya, people are celebrating the fact that a son of this nation has become president. Many stayed up all night. There is such a feeling of connection with him that a national holiday has been declared. Kenyans know he is first and foremost American, but at the same time someone we can call a relative.
I was at the US embassy in our capital yesterday at 5am, when the announcement came in. There were so many people, many of them students or schoolchildren, feeling such excitement and happiness. Obama has demonstrated that America is a country where, if you are strong, committed and focused, you can reach your goals.
I hope that young Kenyans who see this can be inspired to raise the bar for themselves, to go beyond the barriers that have prevented so many from realising the dreams of America. And I hope other countries can give their own sons and daughters the same chances in life.
Similarly, I hope that African leaders can take advantage of the opportunities Obama’s administration is likely to create. It is important for African citizens to realise that he’s not directly going to feed them, clothe them, pay them, or take away their difficulties; what they need to do is roll up their sleeves and make the most of the new situation.
Earlier this year Kenya was riven by ethnic conflict. Now Obama has shown us all that a society can elect its best person as leader, and reject the ethnic labels we are so often stuck with. So many leaders across the world, in Africa especially, have exploited these differences to divide their people and bring misery and conflict. Right now that is happening on a catastrophic scale in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I hope that leaders across Africa will be inspired: here is a young man who could have been one of their own people, but who may have found it impossible to overcome his ethnicity in the continent of his father.
Kenyan pride, then, is offset by a certain amount of ethnic violence. We look to America and see a country that overcame those tensions and elected a black man. I hope Kenyans will raise their own sense of humanity and respect people’s talent rather than their ethnic background.
If there is one thing I would personally wish of Obama, it would be to fight for the environment. I would urge his administration to help Africa protect its forests and to adapt to the changing climate. We know that Africa will be very adversely affected. The post-Kyoto protocol negotiations are ongoing, and forests must be included as part of the solution. I hope America will support that.
I feel a further connection with Obama because, like his father, I was one of those chosen for the Kennedy airlift in the 1960s, in which the US gave scholarships for young people from Africa’s emerging nations to study at US universities. I was based in a small college in Atchison, Kansas, from 1960 to 1966. I remember travelling by Greyhound bus from New York to Kansas, shortly after arriving in the country. Trying to get soda in Indiana, we saw a cafe, and crossed the road. But we were refused a drink. When we asked why, we were told it was because we were black. We didn’t understand it – we were just kids. It was a completely new and confusing experience.
As I think of Obama’s victory, I also remember the demonstrations at the time led by Martin Luther King and others; in particular, his march on Washington. There was such great division between white and black.
I could not keep my eyes dry when I recalled Dr King’s words: “I have a dream.” So much of that dream has been echoed this week. I did not believe I would live to see that moment. At the time the dream seemed far into the future, hundreds of years. Just 40 years have passed. Amazing. I can only hope it is the beginning of a better world for our children and their children.
When you look at the people receiving Obama in Chicago, they are white, black, yellow – exactly as envisaged by Dr King. The US truly has overcome. And with the global reaction it seems like the whole world is joining in that overcoming. This is one of the most inspiring moments of my life. Americans have elected a person of extraordinary character and ability, who also happens to be black. It is a moment of greatness for all humanity.
• Wangari Maathai is a Kenyan political and environmental campaigner. She was awarded the 2004 Nobel peace prize www.greenbeltmovement.org
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