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The Obama Diaspora

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Sayid, Mama Sarah, and Auma Obama at a news conference in Kogelo, 2008.  

The Spokesman
Sayid Obama, one of Onyango and Sarah’s four children, lives in the lakeside town of Kisumu, six-hours west of Nairobi, and has at times acted as the unofficial spokesman for the family members living in Kenya. It’s a tough job: He’s constantly fielding calls from the media. The British press has dominated the coverage of the family, in part because of the country’s colonial ties to Kenya, in part because British papers have fewer compunctions than American ones about paying for interviews. Sayid is sick of dealing with it. “We have been grossly misquoted by the press,” he says over the phone in his native Luo. “We are aware of people posing as tourists and journalists coming to Kogelo asking questions that sometimes place the legitimacy of Barack’s presidency in question. There are those from the ‘birther’ movement who want to undermine him all the time. Pressure is piling on us to behave in a certain manner that is a bit impossible. We’ve always been this quiet family, and we intend to remain that way.”

The Pitchwoman
Barack Obama Sr.’s first wife, Kezia, now lives in the London suburb of Bracknell. During the 2008 campaign, she became a minor celebrity in the Fleet Street tabloids, which descended on her house to describe her modest life, her enthusiasm for playing bingo, and her glowing opinions of her stepson. (“He was so much like his father,” she told the Daily Mail, “his looks, his voice, everything.”) After the election, Kezia formed a relationship with the Gala Coral Group, a large British gambling company, becoming the celebrity face of an online game called “Mrs. Obama’s Bingo.” (Ten percent of the proceeds benefit a palliative-care charity.) The launch of the game coincided with Barack Obama’s inauguration. Kezia, who attended, was chauffeured to the airport in a bright-yellow taxi covered with “Gala Bingo” branding. When she returned home, she made a series of appearances on the company’s behalf. “She was pretty uncomfortable talking to anyone, and she was desperately afraid of offending Barack, putting her foot in it, or saying the wrong thing,” says Patrick Barkham, a columnist for the Guardian, who interviewed her between calls at a bingo hall. She told Barkham that she’d enjoyed seeing her stepson at the inauguration, but added that he’d warned the family that reporters “sometimes turn the truth upside-down.”

The Philanthropist
Kezia’s oldest child, Abon’go Malik Obama, was a bit of a hell-raiser in his younger days, but he has since converted to Islam, sworn off drinking, and devoted himself to the cause of fighting poverty. Malik now splits his time between Washington, D.C., where he used to work for an international-development consulting firm, and Kisumu, where he owns an electronics shop. He recently started a nonprofit organization in memory of his father. According to its website, the Barack H. Obama Foundation will focus on literacy, health, and sanitation projects in the communities surrounding Kogelo. A picture gallery shows various projects under construction, including a new well, a madrassa, and a house for the local imam (suggesting, if nothing else, that the White House wasn’t involved in awarding the grants). Malik Obama has not sought publicity for his foundation. “We need some peace now,” he says, referring to the media attention the family has received this year. Prospective board members say the foundation is still in its infancy and will be formally launched at a later date. It is, however, already accepting tax-deductible donations via PayPal.

The Watchdog
Kezia’s daughter Auma Obama is probably the Kenyan relative the president knows best: She acted as Barack’s guide when he made the pilgrimage he describes in Dreams From My Father and was later a bridesmaid at his wedding. She’s a vigilant guard of the family’s name and privacy, although her powers of message control have their limits. Last May, Auma’s ex-husband, Ian Manners, who lives in Britain, announced that he intended to seek a seat in Parliament as a Conservative Party candidate, telling the London Evening Standard that, despite their ideological differences, he planned to reproduce some of “the magic that Barack Obama has sprinkled over the White House.” Auma, who divorced Manners almost a decade ago and now lives in Nairobi, promptly rebuked her ex for “riding on my brother’s name.”

The Playboy
Kezia’s third child, Abo Obama, runs a cell-phone shop on the outskirts of Nairobi. In April, the tabloid News of the World reported that during a layover in London on his way to the inauguration, Abo (who goes by the name Samson) was denied entry into Britain on the grounds that he’d been accused of an attempted sexual assault. The incident, which had allegedly taken place the previous November, involved his following a group of girls—one 13 years old—into a café not far from his mother’s home. Through his ex-brother-in-law Ian Manners, Samson said the allegations were “absolute lies.” “He is a bit of a playboy,” Manners told the Times of London, “but would not get involved with 13-year-old girls. It is unthinkable.”


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