Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States hands over the baton to Donald Trump on the 20th January. Millions of people on the African continent have followed his presidency very closely. Why? The fact that he is the leader of arguably the most powerful country in the world is obviously one of the reasons, but the fact that his father was Kenyan, and that African blood flows through his veins is another. We identify with the fact that Obama has some African blood. The fact that he did not see very much of his father, or that he only visited Kenya as an adult is irrelevant.
Obama’s story is inspirational; it reminds us that as Africans, we too can aspire to the highest office.
Perhaps the lesson for us as Africans is that we are capable of taking on huge roles on a global stage.
Another important lesson, this time from his father’s life is the fact that one doesn’t have to be born with the proverbial silver spoon in one’s mouth to succeed. His father hails from Nyang’oma Kogela, a small rural village in Kenya, which was only connected to the national electricity grid post 2008.
Like many rural South African boys and boys throughout the continent, as a boy, Obama’s father herded goats. He was ambitious, worked hard, dreamed big and pursued his dream of securing a scholarship to attend college in Hawaii. He later completed a PhD at Harvard. There are millions of young South Africans, and young people on the continent, who live in remote rural areas. The lesson is very clear, work hard, dream big, and the world is your oyster.
Obama had a middle-class upbringing and like many Africans he was largely raised by his grandparents. He was a good, but not outstanding student – many young people only “come into their own” in their tertiary studies. Particularly impressive is his commitment to lifelong learning. He went to college in Los Angeles for his freshman and sophomore years, then majored in political science at Columbia University. His work to improve conditions in a poorly maintained housing project in Chicago, convinced him that faced with bureaucracy in his working life, in order to get things done, he needed a law degree. He went back to university. He excelled, and graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School. Perhaps the lesson here, for young South Africans and Africans on the continent as a whole, is to find your passion and to keep learning. If you’re passionate about something and are prepared to work hard, you will excel.
I for one felt that the world was in safe hands under Obama’s watch. I respected his honesty, integrity, moral compass, intellect, compassion, empathy, cool-headedness and inclusiveness as a leader. I hope he is right when he says “We’re going to be OK.” I also hope that after a well-earned rest, he reaches out to Africa, and plays a role as mentor, sage, negotiator or wise counsellor to leaders on the African continent.