The dynamism of the American society is reflected not just in movies and innovations such as Facebook or the internet, but also in social settings and interactions.
America is in a state of flux, driven by innovations, immigrants and cities where ideas fight, with the fittest surviving.
That dynamism finds its way into politics and percolates to lower levels of the society. A good example is the election of Barack Obama for two terms.
By so doing, America sent a message to the world: we can be innovative in politics by doing the unexpected. Who thought Americans would vote a Black man to White House? Though I still ask what colour I am if Obama is black.
Even Donald Trump was part of that American dynamism, shaking the political system both at home and abroad. He rode on nostalgia of American greatness and yearning for the good old days. He found enough adherents.
Trump’s performance in this year’s polls, despite all the odds against him, leaves no doubt his message resonated with Americans. He moved from liberalism to ultra-conservatism. He has left his mark on the Supreme Court and the echoes of his four years at the White House could outlive him.
This dynamism is what attracts everyone to the United States of America. Part of it is a well crafted mystic conveyed through movies and other media. Once you get ashore, you find a different country from the one of the legends. But it’s often too late to turn back. You become part of the mystic.
The truth is that the new immigrants bring new talents, dreams and illusions and add to this dynamism. By the time they get accustomed to the new system, they have already made their contribution to the country.
It’s the same way we are attracted to Nairobi from all rural areas. We would rather live in a slum than return to our unglamorous rural homes.
Remember all the top students from high school to university? They all end up in Nairobi. Then we ask why rural areas never develop. How, when all the best brains are vacuumed into the cities and towns?
This US dynamism is further driven by new ideas from labs and social interactions catalysed by immigrants. We can copy US political systems, with senators and governors, but not their socio-cultural settings. It is one reason why our 2010 Constitution has so many issues despite its semblance to US document.
The soft part of this dynamism is the socio-cultural setting that is hard to copy. That is why USA is an open society with open borders and immigrants pouring in, both legal and illegal, but she retains her dominance. You cannot replicate the setting. Even China cannot copy USA’s dynamism.
Can we replicate US dynamism here in Kenya? Think of sons and daughters of immigrants from Tanzania, Armenia, Japan, Fiji and others immigrating to Kenya and one day becoming presidents. Maybe that is what we need to break the bond of tribalism.
We see lots of dynamism in technology and business in Kenya. Foreigners have no problem running businesses, we seek them as investors, rolling out a red carpet for them, posing in photos with them. Why can’t we let the same dynamism into politics? When are we voting an Indian, mzungu, Makonde or Shona into the presidency?
We admire USA and wish to immigrate there — going by the popularity of the Green Card — but are unwilling to change to be like that country beyond naming our kids after famous Americans. We are not welcoming to new ideas and new people.
How many counties can vote a governor from a different tribe? Noted how the county government employees are skewed towards the natives? How can we introduce dynamism into such places?
The dynamism of US politics is reflected every four years when they vote for a president with his new ideas. That is Africa‘s biggest problem; presidents who overstay kill dynamism.
But that dynamism is ongoing in USA in-between the polls with research in top universities and ceaseless search for new ideas. The American pragmatism easily jettisons ideas that don’t work.
The latest show of dynamism is the election of Kamala Harris as the next vice president. Notice her novelty: a woman of mixed racial background, African and Asian, specifically Tamil from Southern India.
Note how such marriages are rare in Kenya despite a century of Asian presence. Asians, particularly Indians came to build the railway and stayed. We thought electing Obama was exotic enough till Kamala (we have Khamala in western Kenya).
There is something else exotic about Kamala that is less evident to most Kenyans. She is a product of a historically black college and university (HBCU), a hundred or so institutions in the US that educate mostly African-Americans.
She might be the highest ranking politician to have graduated from a HBCU, in her case Howard. Notice how Howard rhymes with Harvard. If you recall, both Joe Biden and Trump courted HBCUs in their campaigns. Schooling in a HBCU is what I share with Kamala. I am an alumni of a HBCU in Jackson, Mississippi in America’s Deep South. I taught in another in Kentucky.
Interestingly, I have never known to this day how I got into a HBCU. Despite my curiosity, I had not heard of HBCUs, till I found myself in one.
But with hindsight, I think it was a blessing in disguise to school in a HBCU. The colleges and universities, the oldest dating back to 1837, may not have the prestige of Ivy League where Obama schooled, but going through one gave me a rare chance to come face to face with American reality, away from the blockbusters of Hollywood.
– The writer is associate professor at the University of Nairobi