Kenya: Special Report: Sleepy Little Village Where Obama Traces His Own Roots

15 August 2004

Nairobi — His sudden rise to stardom has stunned many. Analysts toast him as one of the most brilliant and popular black politicians in the United States in recent times.

Others taunt him as a "skinny kid with a funny name," whose Kenyan father herded goats and lived in a remote village in Siaya, Nyanza province.

With his cousin Yusuf Okoth Obama, when he visited his father's home in Alego, Siaya, 10 years ago. e

But excited admirers both in Kenya and the US celebrate him as a political superstar and a beacon of hope for his people.

As a front runner in the United States Illinois Senate campaigns, Barack Obama Jr has raised a cloud of excitement in the international political arena.

After delivering a well received public speech at the National Democratic Convention in Boston last month, there are some Americans who now believe he is a future candidate for the White House.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, as it were, in the sleepy village of Alego-Kogello where Barack Obama Snr grew up, they call the prospective Senator "Wuod Sarah", Dholuo for "the son of Sarah", Sarah being his foster grandmother.

Obama's real grand mother - the late Habiba Akumu separated with his grandfather, thus forcing Sarah to step in to care for him.

Agitated villagers are waiting in awe. What if Obama wins the Senate seat in the November 2 elections? Will he return home with bags of dollars? Will the rocky road leading to their village be tarmacked? Will their mud-walled schools where Obama's father and cousins once schooled be improved?

As the US senate campaign hots up, Obama mania is sweeping through Alego.

Villagers here now buy newspapers to read every tid bit they can find about their American kin. The rest have their ears glued to battered transistor radios to keep abreast with the latest information about Obama Jr's political exploits.

Everyone you meet in the area wants to be associated either with Obama Jr, his father or even distant relatives.

Newly-born children and oxen, are being named after him. There are even suggestions that a village path leading to a local market be named after him.

With his father, the late Barack Obama senior (second left, in glasses), his step mother Keziah (seated, left) and step brothers Malik , Sadik and sister Auma.

To these simple villagers, news that Obama was causing a political stir in the world's most powerful country is a miracle. "Ma en hono maduong" (this is a big miracle), says 50-year-old Martin Onyango.

"Wamor kod wuod Sarah. Otingo' nying Kenya malo" (We are happy with Sarah's son, he has elevated Kenya' name)," says Onyango as he chews sugarcane.

Some of the people of Alego believe Obama's rising fortunes will translate into increased employment opportunities, better roads and education opportunities. A few are even optimistic that even the dusty Nyang'oma-Kogello market will be upgraded to a big town, complete with an airstrip.

"We don't expect a whole Senator to drive to his home village. We expect him to fly direct and land at Nyang'oma," says George Onyango, a 20-year-old barber.

The prospective Senator's sister-in-law Fauziah Anyango, wife to his step-brother Malik Obama, told the Sunday Nation that she was eager to meet her heroic in-law.

Said she: "I have not met him but I pray that he wins the Senate seat. His victory will not be for us, but for Kenya and Africa."

A Sunday Nation team that set out to trace Obama's roots was surprised to find that, unknown to many, Obama has actually been to this village twice. First in 1983, when he had come to mourn his late father, Barack Hussein Obama, who had died in Nairobi in 1982; and again in 1995 when he brought home his young bride to show her his roots.

During both visits, the villagers paid little or no attention to him. He managed to slip quietly into the village, pray at his father's graveyard and meet a few relatives and villagers.

Family members told the Sunday Nation that they taught his bride how to use traditional pots (Agulu) to fetch water from a nearby stream.

Obama Jr and his bride spent nearly a week sleeping in a tiny room in his foster grandmother's old brick house and ate traditional foods.

The ropes from which he hung a mosquito net at his grandmother's house still dangle in the bedroom.

Photographs taken during his visit to Alego and those taken during his wedding in America have filled three albums.

In one of the photos, a slender, young Obama is seen boarding a matatu (commuter taxi) to Kisumu, from where he and his fiancee would fly to Nairobi and then back to the US.

We were informed that Obama's foster grandmother, Mama Sarah Ogwel, who brought up his father, had actually travelled to the US to visit several times.

Mama Sarah told us: "He is very enthusiastic about his relatives here. He keeps on sending people to find out how we are faring."

And whether or not he wins the Senate seat, the 43-year-old Harvard University trained lawyer is expected back in Alego to build his "Simba" (a young man's hut) in line with Luo traditions.

Barack has deep roots here. He once told me he has two homes - Kenya and the United States, she says happily.

Ever since the news of Obama's Kenya connection was known, Mama Sarah has been receiving a stream of visitors. They now average about five a day.

Most of these visitors are journalists, both foreign and local (like ourselves), who have turned the home upside down while tracing Obama's roots.

To cater for these many uninvited guests, the family is putting up a guest house just next to a house built for his father's first wife, Keziah Obama.

Keziah, who hails from Kendu Bay in Rachuonyo district, lives in Britain with three of her four children.

One of her sons, Malik Obama, is a frequent visitor to the USA but is currently in Kenya though he had travelled to Nairobi when we visited.

While she welcomes visitors, Mama Sarah is getting a little fed up with the disruption they have caused in her life.

The day before the Sunday Nation team arrived, she had played host to a crew from CNN.

Lamented Mama Sarah as we prepared to interview her: "I can't live here in peace. I have been talking to visitors for several hours a day. I have been interviewed a thousand times and I am tired."

Tracing Obama's home was a simple task. The home, located some 60 km from Kisumu town, is well known in Alego. Almost every villager you meet is ready to offer a tip on how to access the home.

To reach the home, one turns off the Kisumu-Siaya road near Ng'iya shopping centre and drives towards Obama's village market, Nyang'oma-Kogello. From there the home is just a stone's throw-away.

By local standards it is a vast well kept compound with Sarah's battered brick house sitting imposingly at the far end.

Two cemented graves, one for Barack Obama Snr and the other for his father Mzee Hussein Onyango Obama, who was born in 1870 but died in 1975.

The Obama family are among the few Muslims in the locality.

The prospective Senator's grandfather was called Hussein Onyango Obama. He worked as a cook and spent most of his working life in Nairobi.

According to Mama Sarah, Obama Jr used his two trips to Kenya to try to unravel his roots. He spoke to many villagers and relatives through an interpreter.

The candidate's best-selling autobiography, Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, was compiled with information gathered from relatives and villagers in Alego.

The story revolves around Obama's quest to find out more about his father, described by many as a brilliant economist who returned from the United States to take up a civil service job in Kenya. He was was later killed in a road accident in 1982, just when he was poised to take up a top job at the Central Bank.

According to the family, Obama's father travelled to America to study at the University of Hawaii in 1959. While there, he worked for an oil company and married his second wife, a white woman, named Anna Toot, and their union produced Barack Obama Jr.

Obama's book says Obama Snr left his family in Hawaii after winning a scholarship to study in Harvard when his son was two years old.

The marriage later broke up after Anna's father opposed it, according to Mama Sarah.

"Anna's father was furious about the marriage and threatened to have Obama Snr expelled from the university. Our son sent us letters, pleading that we intervene to save the marriage," remembers Sarah.

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