Politics & Government

In Kenya, Obama’s family celebrates

Supporters of President-elect Barack Obama cheer news of his presidential victory in Kisumu, Kenya, on Wednesday, November 5, 2008.
Supporters of President-elect Barack Obama cheer news of his presidential victory in Kisumu, Kenya, on Wednesday, November 5, 2008. Shashank Bengali / MCT

KOGELO, Kenya — Here, everyone's an Obama.

On the morning that this East African nation's favorite adopted son won the White House, villagers danced and sang and waved American flags and leafy branches that symbolize good fortune. They slaughtered bulls and goats in preparation for a feast as they contemplated the idea that part of America's next first family lives right here in western Kenya.

"I'm so happy, I don't know if I'll die of happiness," Sarah Onyango Obama, President-elect Barack Obama's 86-year-old step-grandmother, said outside her one-story farmhouse in the green hills above Lake Victoria.

Obama's late father, Barack Obama Sr., was born in Kogelo — Sarah was his stepmother — and although father and son barely knew each other, Kenya has embraced Obama as an icon of triumph and possibility.

As the nation celebrated his victory — Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki declared Thursday a public holiday — the distance from the cow pastures of Kogelo to the Rose Garden of the White House suddenly didn't seem so great.

"We have a president from this place," marveled Mary Adhiambo, a 21-year-old mother, who lives in Kogelo and counts herself a cousin of the family. She was standing under a tree and watching wide-eyed as Mama Sarah, as she's known here, addressed a throng of journalists trampling her lawn.

Looking regal in a flowing print dress and matching head scarf, surrounded by more than two dozen members of the extended Obama clan, she joked about expecting an invitation to the Inaugural in Washington in January.

"Do you really think I'm going to be left behind?" she said.

She sounded a more somber note when recalling the passing of Obama's maternal grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, on Sunday at age 86.

"It's the only thing that tarnishes" the excitement, said Obama's half-sister Auma, whom he thanked in his acceptance speech in Chicago.

Throughout western Kenya, Obama's victory felt like redemption from the country's immediate past. Many in the predominant Luo tribe — to which Obama's father belonged — are still smarting from Kenya's disputed presidential election last December, when a narrow loss by the Luo candidate, Raila Odinga, unleashed weeks of violence that killed more than 1,000 people and reignited tensions among Kenya's many diverse ethnicities.

"In this country politics is too much about ethnicity. America is showing that leadership has no color," said Samuel Otieno, an unemployed 23-year-old who watched the election results at a fairgrounds in Kisumu, the main city in western Kenya and an hour's drive from Kogelo.

Obama has been to Kogelo only three times, but his mark here is unmistakable. Down the road from the family farmhouse is the Senator Obama Primary School, named for him on his last visit, in 2006. In Kisumu, radios blared a popular Luo song extolling "the son of Kogelo."

Last week, in anticipation of crowds flocking to the home, local authorities graded the dirt road leading to the village — a big deal in rural Kenya.

As dozens of family members and friends prepared for a giant luncheon — expected to include at least four bulls and several goats and chickens — television crews packed up their equipment and journalists who'd camped in the village overnight began to leave. Some in Kogelo felt that life might not be the same here again.

"This is something strange, seeing all these people who have never been here before," Adhiambo said, cradling her 3-month-old girl. "I think we'll see a lot of changes."

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