African community celebrates Obama with Washington ball

January 21st, 2009 - 3:57 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack ObamaWashington, Jan 21 (DPA) Barack Obama was not the only sought-after Obama in Washington at the bevy of balls late Tuesday celebrating his inauguration.When the new president’s aunt and other relatives arrived at the Pan-African Inaugural Ball, they were greeted like celebrities, surrounded by television crews and onlookers ready to snap a picture with someone who has had a brush with greatness.

But for the African community in Washington, including ambassadors and immigrants, it already felt as if they had had their own connection to the 44th president. One of their own - or at least a member of the family tree - is now the most powerful man in the world.

Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetang’ula joked that other foreign ministers now talk to him about Obama before discussing diplomatic issues, with comments like “My brother, Kenya is about to become a super power. You have delivered a president of the United States.”

The event sponsored by the Kenyan embassy the African Union, the Corporate Council on Africa and other groups included a delegation from the president’s ancestral homeland that also included several other ministers, members of parliament and business leaders.

Sarah Obama, the president’s step-grandmother, also came along from Kenya, bringing gifts such as one of the traditional three-legged stools that are given the tribal elders of the Luo people they belong to. A warrior shield and a traditional fly-whisk made from goats’ hair were also to have been part of her luggage.

Mrs Obama was to have been the honoured guest at the ball, but wasn’t among the relatives present. It was unclear what had kept her away. She married Obama’s paternal grandfather after the president’s father had already been born to an earlier wife. But Barack Obama met her on the trip to Africa he details in his memoir “Dreams from My Father” and refers to her as granny.

But despite her absence, organisers put on quite a show in honour of the first black president, whose well-known biography includes his search for his identity as the son of a Kenyan student and white woman from Kansas. Women and men from all African nations and the US pulled out their finest national dress or ball gowns in shades of red, turquoise and black.

The Boys Choir of Kenya was imported for the event and serenaded guests at a sit-down dinner. They first performed a tribal dance complete with shields and spears, before changing into more American T-shirts.

The day’s events touched a special cord for those who had lived through Africa’s colonial past or even the South African apartheid that stained the continent. The feelings of a new advance in racial relations were similar to those felt by African Americans who had faced the segregation laws in the US South during the early 20th century and who worked for equality during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

“It’s a very emotional thing. It brings back all the memories of apartheid,” said Margaret Perakis, a South African immigrant who works as a teacher in Washington and performed as part of an African women’s choir based in the city.

“This should have happened a long time ago, especially in the US,” she added.

More than 1,000 people gathered for dinner, speeches, music and dancing, and many expressed hope that an African American president, especially one just one generation removed from Kenyan roots, would hold a special place in his foreign policy for Africa, going beyond even outgoing president George W. Bush who gave the biggest boost yet to aid for the continent.

Others acknowledged that Obama must be more circumspect.

Howard Moore, a US businessman who does work in Africa, noted Obama’s efforts will be bound by questions of efficacy, like any other leader with ethnic ties.

“Just like a Kennedy couldn’t lean on his Irish roots and give preferences to Ireland,” he said.

Instead, Moore hopes the new president will govern the US in a way that gives thought to the rest of the world, and that in turn will help American companies and others to invest in the continent’s economy.

But for now, Africans and Americans are happy just to dance the night away in celebration of their new favourite son.

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