It was a speech for his country, the US. Yet it was also a speech for the world. What are the lessons?
The world was watching.
The moment had come on Tuesday, January 20. President Barack Obama placed one foot ahead of another, walked on, a step, another, seemed to check his posture, and took oath of office, becoming the 44th President of the United States of America.
Then 21 guns saluted the world’s newest president in a country that holds the illusion that its leader is the world’s most powerful man. Such a country’s chief justice messed a 35-word oath, and Obama corrected him with a smile.
It was a job well started. One of the first jobs of Obama is to correct the mistakes of George Bush whose presidency was not on reason and common sense, but fear and emotions. Just after the oath, a military aide stood near his commander-in-chief as he opened his heart, to speak to Americans and the world.
But before that, a poetess walked on and read forceful lines. It was refreshing. ‘Praise Song for the Day" was the title. It was not ‘Praise Song for Obama’. It was a praise song the day America did something great, a sense of collective work that was inspired by one person who never rose to claim credit because he realised he was standing on the shoulders of his fellow citizens.
Each day we go about our business,
Walking past each other,
Catching each others’ eyes or not,
About to speak or speaking.
This is typical American life: hard work, busy all time, hence people walk past each other, sometimes, in fact often, without noticing the presence of others. The way had been prepared by the poetess. The heart of the world audience was inspired and moved by the last lines
In today’s sharp sparkle,
this winter air,
anything can be made,
any sentence begun.
On the brink,
on the brim, on the cusp—
Praise song for
walking forward in that light.
This signalled hope, a point when America started anew. The podium had been prepared for Obama.
"My fellow citizens," he started. It was a fitting salutation. It showed the speech was meant for citizens of the US. Secondly, and most importantly, this salutation used by US presidents during inauguration and other state functions, confirms that the highest office in any country is that of a citizen, not a President, not a Prime Minister—but that of a citizen, the master who employs politicians to work for the betterment of a country.
The salutation indicates that at the citizen level, all are equal during state functions, hence no need to salute vice presidents, former presidents, cabinet secretaries.
This is different from Malawi where a President, upon inauguration, salutes positions, the honourables, starting with his vice, ministers, regional governors, and finally, after a long list, ladies and gentlemen—those that do not fall in any category of power, those that are ruled and don’t rule, those that are watched over by the powerful.
But this title of honourable kills the spirit of hard work and honesty because even thieves stealing public funds can be called honourable because they are holding an office that attracts such titles.
True honour does not come from the offices we hold. Honour comes from what we do for our country. This is a point we have missed and, as a result, we have diluted the real source of honour. Now it comes from political power when it should come from patriotism, hard work, honesty, and integrity.
"I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors," said Obama.
It was not a task before him, but "before us". He spoke of "we" throughout the speech, signalling that he was spearhearding the rebuilding of a nation bruised by a bitter campaign. Obama reached out to Republicans; he reached out to Democrats who opposed him vehemently and reached out to independents.
"Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms," he said.
He was true to the challenges facing the US today. But he did not talk in a hopeless way. He spoke as if challenging the economic crunch, that it is too small to dwarf American ideals.
"At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our [forefathers], and true to our founding documents," he said. "So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans."
There was an applause. America has carried on because of the people, not because of leaders? America has carried on because of its ideals. Leaders should not tell people what must be done. It is people that should write national manifestoes.
It is not President Bingu wa Mutharika who is constructing Masauko Chipembere Highway. It is the people of Malawi and the people of Japan. It is our development and noone should claim that his plan has been hijacked or not been followed because this belongs to all Malawians—green, blue, yellow, several mixtures or whatever.
The result is that Malawi has lost faith in itself. The population that labels anything Malawian as inferior is not declining as fast as it should have been 45 years after gaining independence.
Obama spoke of America as a child, saying "we remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things." It is time to leave childish thinking and reasoning—or lack of it—meaning, Malawi must grow up.
Political bickering is childish and must stop. Distributing subsidised fertiliser coupons to people of one party is childish and must stop. Overpraising Mutharika is childish and must come to an end. So too denying him any contribution to the development of this country. Police brutality is childish and must stop. Unnecessary opposition is childish and must stop. Evading tax is childish and must stop.
Littering is childish and must stop. Nepotism is childish and must go. Corruption is childish and must come to and an immediate end. Rape and defilement are childish and have to come and an end now.
Such vices come from childish thinking. Every child wants all to belong to itself, nothing for others. Tit for tat is a game of children, not for adults, not for leaders trusted with taking a country to greater heights in the new century.
This journey to prosperity is what Malawi has started and must continue. This is a season of work, time to devote long hours to real work that can develop this country. This idea goes well with Obama’s view of the world.
"And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.
"To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds," said Obama.
The key word is work. America pledges to work with, not give aid to, poor nations. International relations is not new in the US. Foreign policy forms a great deal of their election campaign. Obama is not the first to talk in such terms.
Bush spoke in similar terms in 2004. The purpose of American foreign policy, said Bush, must be the expansion of liberty. It was not a new theme for an American president. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan all spoke in similar tones and terms.
But Obama has spoken in terms of hope. In poetic construction, short and powerful sentences, some just lines, not full sentences, Obama brought hope to an otherwise hopeless world. Bush declared: "So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
But the gap between talk and reality in the Bush administration was striking. Vladimir Putin presided over a reversal of freedoms across the globe, only to be praised by Bush as a soulmate. So scandalously, Bush sided with Putin in the interpretation of the Chechen war as a defensive action against terrorists.
Now there is hope for a difference: that Obama has brought a reality that portrays real challenges and hopes to work for real solution on a difficult, long journey.
That day, when Obama spoke, he finished with an event that characterised the America’s birth, an event that created a generation.
"In the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: ‘Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it,’" recalled Obama.
And, then, in a powerful conclusion he said:
"America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words; with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come; let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."
"Thank you," he said. "God bless you." There was a deafening applause. "And God bless the United States of America," he finished.
The world watched. Malawi too. Now that we are about to witness a hot campaign, the choice is ours to elect a person who will build or destroy Malawi.