x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Jubilation in Kogelo as history is made

Kenyans join in celebrations after one of their own becomes the first black president of the United States.

Kenyan family members of Barack Obama, including his step-grandmother Sarah Obama, centre in red top, celebrate after his victory, in Kogelo village.
Kenyan family members of Barack Obama, including his step-grandmother Sarah Obama, centre in red top, celebrate after his victory, in Kogelo village.

KOGELO, KENYA // Kenyans cheered, beat drums and danced when they learnt that Barack Obama, who has roots in their East African country, would become the first black president of the United States. With Kenya's flawed election and violent aftermath still fresh in many minds, Mr Obama's victory was finally a chance to celebrate. Sarah Obama, Mr Obama's 86-year-old paternal grandmother, watched the election results with other Obama family members at her modest house in the western Kenyan village of Kogelo, near Lake Victoria. She said her grandson would unite Americans, and that she planned to speak to him later in the day. "He works hard and he loves people," she told a crowd of journalists outside her house. "He unites people, like his father." Mr Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr, was born in Kogelo. He met the president-elect's white American mother while studying at university in Hawaii. The elder Obama, who did not bring up his son, died in a car crash in 1982. Kenyans closely followed the US election, and many openly displayed their support for Mr Obama with T-shirts, hats and buttons. His image was splashed on billboards and minibuses all over Kenya. Radio stations played songs written about him in the local Luo language and even a beer was named after him. At 7am local time yesterday, a group of about 100 Kenyans, who had gathered around a television in a sports grounds in the town of Kisumu, threw their hands in the air and screamed when the election was called for Mr Obama. Many chanted his name and shouted "Yes we can", a campaign catchphrase. Many Kenyans think an Obama administration will be a boon for Africa, and they hope Mr Obama will focus on African issues as president. "We expect to get better terms of trade and funds from America," said Otieno Gedion, a 37-year-old salesman from the Luo tribe, the same ethnic group as Mr Obama's father. "His victory means a lot not only to Kenya but all over Africa. Every country in Africa depends on what they get from America and we hope he will look upon us and help." Members of the Luo tribe made up Mr Obama's strongest supporters in Kenya. A Luo politician from Kisumu recently proposed lengthening the runway at the town's airport to accommodate Air Force One, hoping that Mr Obama would decide to fly in and visit his family's nearby village. Mr Obama has travelled to Kenya several times, most recently in 2006. No US president has visited Kenya while in office. Many Kenyans were jubilant for the first time since their own election in December. Mwai Kibaki, the president, claimed victory over Raila Odinga, a Luo, in the poll that was widely seen as flawed. Luos thought the election was stolen from them and rioted in towns in western Kenya, including Kisumu. In two months of bloody tribal violence that followed, more than 1,000 people were killed. "People were dying, they were shooting people," said Joseph Omowya, 20. "They shot at people who voted. Now this election we can celebrate to relieve our pain. No one can shoot at me now." Mr Kibaki declared today a national holiday in honour of Mr Obama's triumph. The president-elect's relatives planned to slaughter a cow and have a feast in Kogelo. Some of Mr Obama's seven half-siblings had gathered at their grandmother's compound, including George Obama, Barack's youngest half-brother. "I am feeling happy," George Obama said. "I am very proud of my brother." Auma Obama, Barack's half-sister, said the family did not expect any favours from their famous relative. "We support him as a family, but we have no expectations," she said. "We don't think that our lives will change." She said her half-brother was special because he transcended race in America to win the election. "All of America voted for Barack," she said. "It's got nothing to do with colour. It's about him as a person. It would reduce what Barack is if it was about colour." A fence was recently erected around Sarah Obama's house and Kenyan police have started guarding the compound to keep curious onlookers away. The president-elect's grandmother said she would like to visit Mr Obama in the White House, but she did not know if she would make it to the inauguration in January. "Of course we will be visiting, we are family," she said through a translator. "When, we don't know." Auma Obama played down the significance of becoming the only first family to come from outside of the United States. "We're just a normal family," she said. "Barack is just doing a civil government job. We aren't making a big deal out of it." mbrown@thenational.ae