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Bay area's native Kenyans jubilant over Obama

TEMPLE TERRACE — This morning, like every morning, Anne Gathegi will rise at 6 a.m., heat some Kenyan tea, then take her place in front of the television.

She usually takes off the third Monday in January in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. But this year, the Wesley Chapel preschool teacher scheduled vacation on Jan. 20 so she could watch the inauguration of President-elect Obama uninterrupted.

"Just to be there in the moment," said Gathegi, who emigrated from Kenya to the United States in 1982. "To feel like I was there."

While many U.S.-born blacks believe that one of the dreams of the civil rights movement will be realized today, area Kenyans are swelling with pride that one of their own will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

"Most of us would never have thought that somebody with roots from Africa would rule this great country," said Rose Waruinge, the owner of Cafe Kili coffee shop on Fowler Avenue and 56th Street. "I couldn't even fathom that."

They hope that Obama — "our son," as some of them call him — will inspire change in their new home and their native one, too.

His ancestry equips him, they say, to address tribalism and other issues that have threatened the East African nation since it gained independence from Britain in 1963.

"(Obama's) father came from my community," said Lawrence Okayo, a member of Kenya's Luo tribe who now lives in Brandon. "We speak the same language."

When Obama visited his family's village in 2006, he criticized Kenya's government for failing to root out corruption and tribal squabbles.

The country was plagued by weeks of rioting after the 2007 presidential election, which pitted the rival Kikuyu and Luo communities against each other.

Waruinge believes that as president, Obama can quell the in-fighting.

"If black and white people can elect Obama, we as Kenyans need to come together and stop looking at each other as tribes," she said. "What are we fighting?"

A registered Republican, Waruinge voted against party lines in last year's election and opened her Temple Terrace coffee shop to local Obama campaign staffers for four months.

She was sold on more than his plan for health care for the uninsured. Her story and Obama's are similar, Waruinge said.

"He came from humble beginnings likes most of us did," said Waruinge, who lives in New Tampa. "I identify with him."

She emigrated from Nairobi to the United States in 1997. Ten years later, she and her husband opened their business, Cafe Kili.

"Sometimes I sit and wonder: What was he thinking daring to do what he did?" she said of Obama. "If you sit down, nothing is going to come to you. But if you go out there and get it, you can get as much as you want as long as you get up and make the effort."

There are roughly 120 Kenyans in the Tampa Bay area, said Eirene Ng'ang'a-Hackett, the chairwoman of the Kenyan Community of Tampa Bay. Nationwide, there were 40,000 Kenyans in the 2000 U.S. Census.

Some members who attended a recent meeting of the local Kenyan group were not eligible to vote in November's election. But many of them said they attended campaign rallies, gave monthly donations, canvassed neighborhoods and knocked on doors.

Waruinge said she already sees positive effects of Obama's campaign, if only in the attitude shift of people back home. The Kenyan president declared Nov. 5 a national holiday to celebrate Obama's victory.

And just before the Nov. 4 election, Waruinge and her sister talked on the phone. A Kikuyu, her sister also referred to Obama as "our son," Waruinge said.

"The tribal barriers have gone. Now they are identifying as Kenyans because they are identifying with Obama."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5303.

Bay area's native Kenyans jubilant over Obama 01/19/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 20, 2009 5:12pm]
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