Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Obama Dry Cleaners

So far in Kampala, I have enjoyed a cold beer at the Obama bar, stopped in the Obama church, haggled over the price of an Obama belt buckle and, if I ever need shirts pressed, will make sure to take them to the Obama dry cleaners.

After working on President Obama's campaign, and then in his Administration for a year and a half, I was curious to see what Ugandans would think of America's first African-American president, whose father comes from Kenya, just to the north. I got the answer I was expecting: utter infatuation. In the rural districts, men and women wear "Yes We Can" t-shirts. When I tell people I come from Washington, D.C., it's a guarantee that they say, "Where Obama lives!" You see Obama bumper stickers on cars (not sure where they got them, we certainly didn't have any in our campaign office).

Eyes light up when I tell Ugandans I used to work for Barack Obama. Some have even asked me if I can convince the president to come visit Uganda. Sure, I say, I'll just give him a call...

The change in attitudes towards America, simply based on his election as president, is palpable and tangible. I have had numerous people say to me that they thought America was destructive and evil under a certain former president, but that if the American people could elect Barack Obama, we must be alright.

But there is another, more subtle, reaction to our 44th president going on, particularly in NGO circles. Think what you want about George W. Bush, but he made a committed and sustained push to combat AIDS around the world, and specifically in Africa. PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), launched by W. in 2003, funnelled billions of dollars to African governments and organizations devoted to AIDS research, prevention, and care. The results have been mostly positive, as AIDS rates are dropping around the continent (although they are beginning to rise again in Uganda).

By contrast, in his time in office, Barack Obama has had to deal with the worst economic climate in 80 years, two wars, and more recently, a horrific oil spill. As I try to explain, it's not that our President isn't as devoted to helping Africa; it's just that he's been busy and purse strings are tight. But how do you tell Africans that their plight is simply not a priority for the American people?

Some here in Uganda are frustrated with Obama. They understand the historical significance of his election, but wish he would devote more time, energy, and resources to his father's home continent. As one colleague told me, in Africa, Obama is beloved as a person and as an idea, but the jury is still out on his policies.

I plan to discuss this topic further with my Ugandan friends and co-workers over beers at the Obama bar.

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