In no other country on Earth is my story even possible

Bwanji from Zambia!

As some of you know, a few weeks ago I became an American citizen (don’t worry, I still have my Canadian passport just in case!).  In the waiting area as your paperwork is checked with hundreds of others and a judge swears you in, no electronics are allowed. So I grabbed a book before I left home and made my way through the first two thirds of President Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father.  A memoir written 13 years before he became President and while he started his Senate campaign in Chicago, it maps a journey of his time in Hawaii, Indonesia, California, New York, Chicago, and Kenya. And, as luck would have it, I started the section on Kenya as I departed for the Global Schools Forum taking place in Nairobi.

What struck me most was that while Obama’s story of success is an unlikely one, tracing his origins and early career was enormously powerful in understanding why he has been successful. In particular, he details the painstaking work he did organizing small, impoverished communities in Chicago in his early years. He discusses all of the failures – all of the times he set out to meet with a particular group of parents, or churches, and 8 people showed up instead of 50 (imagine being one of those 8 people now!).  He discusses his successes – but truthfully, they seem like little tiny wins that wouldn’t really move the needle much on his goals. He describes the tedious process of organizing communities around a common goal, how he built relationships built on trust and mutual respect, and how he ultimately became successful. 

He also discusses his journey back to Kenya and meeting his father’s family. As he described the landscape and economic opportunities in some of these rural villages, it is impossible not to be in awe of the fact that just one generation before him, the possibilities for someone born into the Obama family were limited by geographic and financial constraints. His father, Barack Obama Sr., was born on the banks of Lake Victoria, attending a local primary school in Kendu Bay. He eventually attended secondary school in Siaya, an Anglican boarding school in Maseno, and then, the University of Hawaii. While Obama Sr. was a complicated man, it is undeniable that education shaped the opportunities he was given, and that this ultimately offered a better future for his son. Indeed, without his schooling and the opportunities it gave him, we would not have had President Barack Obama.

I am reminded again of this quote from President Obama:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

Barack Obama.jpg

In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

I hope that the story of Barack Obama will become less exceptional as our world becomes increasingly flat. In the context of our work with 6,000 students – any one of them is the future President of Zambia. And maybe one of them is the next President Barack Obama too.