NAIROBI — I had not spoken to George Obama in years, not since co-writing a story on the far-flung Obama diaspora for this magazine in 2009. But last week, President Barack Obama’s youngest half-brother called. By coincidence, I was in Kisumu, the western Kenyan city closest to Obama’s ancestral village, waiting to meet another of Obama’s relatives, his half-uncle Said, for an interview.
After a few pleasantries, George asked me when I was coming to see him. Then the conversation took a familiar turn as he asked whether I would buy him lunch, a well-known Kenyan euphemism for slipping someone some cash. I declined, we chatted a bit more, then hung up.
George said the hounding by journalists over the years had, eventually, forced him out of Nairobi, where he used to live, to the quiet anonymity of a village close to Lake Victoria where he was keeping his head down. But as his half-brother prepared to make his first visit to Kenya since becoming president of the U.S., George was resurfacing, hoping like so many others to make something of his trip.
Obama’s homecoming, as his visit to Kenya this weekend is seen here, has dominated newspapers for weeks (this is a country where daily newspapers still sell and still set the day’s agenda).
The coverage crescendoed on Friday. “Karibu Obama” (“Welcome Obama”) ran the identical, and predictable, headlines in Kenya’s two leading newspapers. The Standard promised its readers a “128-page bumper issue,” complete with a double-size centerfold of Obama at the lectern and a photo album of snaps from his previous visits to Kenya, as a senator in 2006 and a young man in 1988.
The Daily Nation had included a special 32-page pullout in the previous day’s edition and encouraged readers to tweet their enthusiasm using the #ObamaInKenya hashtag. #ObamaHomecoming is also popular.
Nairobi — or rather, the few parts of the city Obama will drive through, as opposed to fly over — are getting an unprecedented face-lift. With characteristic wit, Kenyans have dubbed this cleanup “Obamacare.”
Potholes have been filled, broken pavements tarred, curbs cemented into place and painted, and new streetlights erected. Flimsy U.S. and Kenyan flags dangle from wonky new poles along the routes the presidential cavalcade will travel.
Flowers and grass have been planted on once-barren verges and central reservations, but the City Council notices reading “Keep off the grass” are sadly optimistic: The flurry of civic works were left so late that the grass seeds are yet to sprout and the mini-palm trees and flower stems list in the muddy banks.
“Maybe it will be ready by the time the Pope is coming,” laughs a taxi driver, referring to a proposed papal visit, in November.
Obama memorabilia is everywhere. Street hawkers have swapped the usual tangles of phone chargers and stacks of cell-phone scratch cards for American flags roughly nailed to splintered sticks. Clothes sellers are doing a brisk trade in T-shirts with Obama’s screen-printed picture. The Stars and Stripes flutter from the handlebars of boda-boda motorbike taxis while matatu minibus taxis have been resprayed with a U.S. presidential triumvirate of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Obama.
Kenyans are eager to welcome home a man they refer to as their “son,” though this is no nation of birthers. Kenyans know Obama was born in the U.S., but that detail can be lost among the patriotic pride and jingoistic fervor.
Obama’s Kenyan roots are deep and strong and his story a seeming contraction of time itself, making the leap from a tiny African village to the White House in just one generation.
Kogelo, in the far west, is the Obamas’ ancestral village, where the president’s father, Barack Obama Senior, and grandfather, Hussein Obama, are both buried. His oldest living relative, 94-year old step-grandmother Sarah Obama, still lives here. The village primary and secondary schools are both named after him. Roads and restaurants carry the Obama name.
Businessman Nicholas Rajula — who claims distant kinship with the president — built the Kogelo Village Resort explicitly to cash in on Obama tourism.
The main building is called the White House. Rooms are named after Obama’s wife, daughters, and other ancestors (I was put up in “Michelle” during my recent visit). A wonderfully bad cement statue of Obama shaking hands with his 94-year-old step-grandmother, who still lives in Kogelo, greets visitors. The hotel conference room is Pentagon Hall. The grassy courtyard garden where, in November 2012, I joined the people of Kogelo to watch the U.S. election results on a large-screen television, is being dug up to make way for a swimming pool.
Rajula, 55, has big plans that he does not think will be disrupted by Obama leaving office next year. He compares Kogelo to Jerusalem, “where Jesus was born” and says the village will remain a pilgrimage site for years to come. Nor does the fact that Obama is not expected to make the pilgrimage himself this weekend curb his enthusiasm.
“We can’t be disappointed,” he tells me, “this is a one-off show. Already we have achieved so much through his presidency. And we understand that he is a busy man.”
In the wake of the Obama’s inauguration the Kenyan government discovered Kogelo building a paved road and delivering grid electricity and piped water for the first time.
“Until he became the president, we didn’t have a lot of things,” says Said, 49, when I meet him in Kisumu. “There was no electricity, no tarmac roads, there was not water flowing. I grew up herding my father’s livestock and that’s even what Barack Senior did when he was growing up in the village.”
Despite these changes, Kogelo remains a quintessentially rural African place, its soundscape dominated by lowing cows, crowing roosters, birdsong, and the happy chatter of children — many of them barefoot — walking to school.
The attention on the Kenyan Obamas has taken its toll over the years. “We no longer have our privacy,” says Said, who has assumed the role of family spokesman.
To be fair, some of the intrusion has been invited. Memoirs penned by Obama’s constellation of half-relatives (and their ghostwriters) are a thriving cottage industry. George, as well as half-sister Auma and China-based half-brother Mark Ndesanjo, have all published books since Obama became president.
Others have sought to profit in different ways. Another half-brother, Malik, made a disastrous run for local political office in Kenya in 2013 and has taken to auctioning off old handwritten letters from the president and occasionally bad-mouthing him to the conservative U.S. media. When I visited Malik’s Barack H. Obama Foundation and restaurant in Kogelo, his SUV was parked out back but a waiter insisted he was not around.
But for most Kenyans, Obama’s visit is more than an opportunity to cash in, it is a moment of national pride and personal inspiration, a sign of Kenya’s position in the world and a reminder that your origins don’t have to determine your future.