Kenyan roots important in Obama's story

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama: When he came to Kenya for the first time, he passed as any other visitor. PHOTO/ REUTERS

What Barack Obama misses most about Kenya is … a quiet snack of chai (tea) and samosas.

The US President-elect, now poised to become the most powerful man in the world, last visited Kenya two years ago, when he joked about the massive security already being provided by both US agents and the Kenya police.

When asked what he missed most about the country of his father’s birth, he quipped: “I miss the days I would walk into Green Corner Restaurant and enjoy chai and samosa without attracting attention.”

The man who arrived here to trace his roots, full of dreams about the father he hardly knew, now heads the most formidable political machine in modern history.

And after he won the US election last week, becoming President-elect of America, the village of his father’s birth — Kogelo in Siaya — has been celebrating its most famous son.

Bulls, goats and sheep were slaughtered to celebrate the victory of the man who had brought American politics into virtually every home.

Public holiday

The country declared a public holiday for him. And the Government spokesman, Dr Alfred Mutua, who during Sen Obama’s visit in 2006 denounced him as ignorant after he criticised the Government, last week changed his tune like a court poet to heap praises upon him.

President-elect Barack Obama’s past visits to Kenya were in complete contrast to that if two years ago.

When he came to Kenya for the first time, he passed as any other visitor. . . no chauffeur drive, no state security, no battery of journalists with attendant photographers clicking away, no important politicians to accompany him.

Lost luggage, rude hotel staff and bumpy rides along rural roads were just some of the problems he faced in his zeal to find ‘Old Man’, as he refers to his father in his best selling book, ‘Dreams from My Father’.

At Jomo Kenyatta International Airport however, he did find it a relief to be among his father’s people. No longer was anyone asking him to spell his name, or mangling its pronunciation. One British Airways official had actually known his father and offered his condolences for his death.

He wrote in Dreams from My Father: “I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry the history of other people’s memories, so that they might nod knowingly, saying that you are the son of so and so.’’

He continued: “My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn in web of relationships, alliances and grudges I had yet to understand.”

Fellow Americans

But because he belonged, he was treated as though he did not have the right to be where his fellow Americans were.

Obama had gone for lunch with his half-sister Dr Auma Obama at a leading Nairobi restaurant. He thought that the service was taking so long because the waiters had not seen them.
He later came to realise that the delay was due to their skin colour.

He writes that a white American family who arrived much later than they had were accorded the services of two waiters “both of them smiling from ear to ear.”

Meanwhile, two other waiters were standing by the kitchen not making any attempt to serve them.

“Eventually an older man with sleepy eyes relented and brought us two menus. His manner was resentful though after several minutes he showed no signs of coming back.”

The episode left Obama wondering whether the waiters had realised that the time for the white rule had come to an end. Perhaps it was a prophecy to the man who would became a household name in the world politics years later.

Earlier, one of his bags had been sent to Johannesburg by mistake. Two days later, he was to come face to face with the human face of poor service and the contempt with which ordinary people are treated.

New nightclub

Two women at an airline counter were talking about a new nightclub that had opened in town.

When he told them that he was looking for his luggage, he was told to come back at midnight if he wished.

He then sought help from the airline’s head office in the town centre, where he writes that the receptionist had “withdrawn behind a stony mask, a place where neither pleading nor bluster could reach.”

To his surprise, a man who he says is related to him through a sequence he could not quite follow came in. He happened to know the manager; the manager’s intervention caused the bag, which was reportedly in South Africa, to be dropped in town, leaving him to wonder why blacks looked down upon blacks.

After a brief stay in Nairobi, he took the long-awaited train ride to Kisumu from where he was to connect by bus to Nyangoma Kogelo village on the outskirts of Siaya town.

But there were no buses, so he had to make the journey in “a sad-looking vehicle with balding, cracked tires’’. It was full, but as usual there was room for one more.

Throughout difficult and embarrassing situations, Obama said he remained philosophical about whatever he was going through. When he visited other relatives in Kendu Bay in Kobama village, he slept on a mat in a grass-thatched mud- walled house.

Opened his eyes

But he writes that the Kenyan trip opened his eyes and gave him the answers he had been looking for all along.

Two years ago, the story was different. Not only had the paths been opened up to easy passage of vehicles, but the home and the entire village was put under a 24 hour surveillance by the US Marines, Secret Service agents and the Kenya police.

His 2006 visit had all the hallmarks of a homecoming ceremony for a hero. The skinny man with funny name, as he once described himself, has had a complete metamorphosis at home and abroad.

Since his election in 2004 as one of the two senators from Illinois, in Kenya his name has adorned everything from beer to matatus to schools.

According to his memoir, the journey to find the father he never really knew began in New York and ended under a mango tree where his grandmother Sarah braided his sister Auma’s hair.

The other side

His mother and her parents had told him their stories, but he needed to know the other side as well. On that visit he learned much more about the country of his father which helped to answer the questions that had been troubling him as an African- American.

President-elect Obama learnt from an early age the importance of tribes in Kenya. And like most Kenyans, he was not afraid to associate himself with his father’s Luo tribe.

According to his memoir, Barack Obama once told a friend that his grandfather, who had worked as a cook, was actually a tribal king, and that his father was a prince poised to take over the kingdom after the death of his grandfather.

And he went on to say that in the event of his father’s death — he died in 1982 but not before once visiting his son in Hawaii — he would become a prince if he chose to.

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