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Matt: How many Kenyans were involved in the slave trade? Did this include Obama’s Kenyan grandfather?
— Irv J., via email

Yikes! The political debate takes a new and nasty turn. Well, at least it’s our chance to participate in the great American tradition of president-selecting. So-o-o-o — Kenya and the slave trade. Well, as an east African country, Kenya’s role was slightly different from the hot west coast that was more convenient to Europeans. Actually, the first slave traders in Africa were Muslims, who needed bodies for their trans-Saharan and trans-Asiatic caravans. Mortality was high. West Africa was the most nearby source. The Muslim slave trade long predates the Europeans in Africa.

When the British and Portuguese began recruiting slaves from west Africa for the Caribbean plantations about 1500, it set off clashes between various African tribes in the area. Each one tried to capture enough of the other guys and deliver them to the Europeans to protect themselves from being swept off the continent. This may have happened in east Africa too, but I couldn’t find any evidence.

The Obamas are from the Luo tribe of Kenyans, from the western part of the country, farthest from the coast, the heart of the slave trade. Obama’s grandfather herded goats. Not likely that he traded slaves. But, hey, throw this into the mudslinging morass that is the presidential campaign if you like. It’s another timeless American tradition.

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