Will Obama visit his 'homeland'? Why Western Kenyans hold out hope.

Anticipation of President Obama's visit has been high in his ancestral home, where he is seen as a rare example of success from the politically sidelined region. But news that he will not make a stop here has left many disappointed.

Ariel Zirulnick
Fred Gombe, a host at Radio Lake Victoria in Kisumu, Kenya, has been deluged with calls and texts into his morning show about President Barack Obama's visit to Kenya this weekend. Obama, whose father is Kenyan and a member of the Luo tribe, holds particular significance in this region, where Luos have their roots. But his schedule doesn't include a visit to western Kenya this time.

Call it denial or call it hope, but many here don’t believe President Barack Obama will come to Kenya without paying a visit to his “homeland” in the country’s west. 

On Radio Lake Victoria’s morning call-in show, listeners were still musing early this week about how President Obama would travel to the area. Would he use their poor roads and see how neglected this region is? Can the local airport accommodate Air Force One? Is there a place in Kogelo where a helicopter can land? 

Anticipation has been high in Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city and the heartland of the Luo tribe on the eastern flank of Lake Victoria. And nowhere is the excitement more apparent than on the call-in shows that dominate Radio Lake Victoria’s airwaves. 

As one of the region’s main sources of news, the station has been deluged with calls and comments since Obama’s visit was announced in March, leaving the show hosts struggling to get in a conversation on anything else. Callers have asked for less music and more Obama talk. Even during shows on totally different topics, one of every three comments sent in by text is about him, station host Fred Gombe says.

Obama’s Luo father was raised in Kogelo, an hour outside of Kisumu, and his step-grandmother, known nationwide as “Mama Sarah,” still lives there (an earlier version of this story identified her as his grandmother). Obama retraced Barrack Hussein Obama Sr.’s steps in a journey encapsulated in his book “Dreams of my Father” in 1988, and has made his Kenyan roots part of his own American dream story. He again visited in 2006 as a senator.

But locals here have yet to welcome him in his role as the American president after almost seven years and three sub-Saharan Africa trips that left Kenya off the list. So when US Ambassador to Kenya Bob Godec said that there wasn’t enough time for Obama to visit anywhere outside the capital – where he is chairing the Global Entrepreneurship Summit – the region was stunned.

“How sure are you that he’s not coming?” quips Willis Opio Otondi, the chairman of the local Council of Elders, when asked if he’ll travel to Nairobi to see Obama instead. “He has to come to Kisumu and Kogelo to really come home.”

The reactions range from Mr. Otondi’s playful denial to despair.

“Is this true? Is Obama really not coming?” a middle-aged man calling in to Mr. Gombe’s call-in show on Radio Lake Victoria asked, bursting into tears. Several more called that day to console him, insisting Obama wouldn’t disappoint them. In the last couple weeks, Gombe says, he’s also heard threats of demonstrations, and even suicide if the leader doesn’t come.

The devotion is about more than Obama’s roots with the Luos, Kenya’s third largest ethnic group and a political bloc that has perpetually been relegated to the sidelines or opposition. In Kenya, development projects are dished out to the winners first, as seen in previous administrations. So decades of being also-rans have taken their toll on Luo areas of Kenya – and their psyche.

Obama’s success has highlighted their own unfulfilled political dreams, and a visit by him speaks to their own desires of winning Kenya’s top political position.

“Obama coming at this time would change a lot of fortunes of the Luo nation,” says Walter Akeche, a clergyman at the Power of Jesus Around the World Church near Kogelo, idly lounging on a bench at a bike repair shop in the village’s market. “We’ve had a rough time since independence.”

The rise of two politicians

As Obama’s campaign of hope and change was coalescing in 2007, Raila Odinga, the most powerful Luo politician, also looked like he just might finally deliver the presidency in the 2007 election after 44 years of Kenyan independence – a struggle in which Luos played as pivotal a role as the other ethnic groups who came to dominate politics. At the time, it was not uncommon to see promotional calendars with photos of both Obama and Mr. Odinga.

But when the vote tally was released, President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner despite many early returns showing Odinga had the lead, and widespread allegations of voting irregularities. The dispute triggered ethnic violence that lasted weeks and left more than 1,000 dead.

The refrain in these parts went from the jubilant “A Luo in the State House and the White House” (the former referring to the residence for Kenyan presidents) to the resigned “At least we have a Luo in the White House” as they picked up the pieces – although there was still an all-night party the night Obama won.

In the years since, Odinga has remained in the opposition, sidelined by a powerful coalition government. In-party fighting among the opposition coalition have also stunted his ambitions. But the sense of grievance persists, periodically inflamed by events like the International Criminal Court’s dropping of charges in 2014 against President Uhuru Kenyatta for crimes against humanity in connection with the post-election violence.

High expectations

Since his election in 2008, Luos have heaped many of their expectations on Obama instead.

“Obama will get [Kenya] back on track,” says a young man, giving a speech at Kisumu’s People’s Parliament, an informal daily gathering under a shady mango tree in the city center.

Men, businessmen and jua kali (informal laborers) alike, drop in and talk politics in the local language and listen to impassioned, impromptu speeches given under a picture of Odinga that hangs from the tree.

Speaking the same day that two former US diplomats in Africa published a stern op-ed in The New York Times telling Obama he needed to be tougher on Kenya’s sitting government – which received play in every major Kenyan paper – a young man challenged Obama to address corruption, the ICC charges against Deputy President William Ruto, and a number of other major issues in Kenya today.

The young man confidently criticized Ambassador Godec for “handling Kenya with kid gloves,” as if the top US diplomat and Obama didn’t have the same playbook. “[Obama] wants to do things differently.”

The demands are much more prosaic, too. In Kogelo, Joseph Okelo, a retired store owner, and several others planned to meet at the home of Mama Sarah, Obama’s step-grandmother, to come up with a list of things they need from her famous grandson: better roads, more schools, and improved health care.

Mama Sarah, who is reportedly going to travel to Nairobi to see her grandson, is sad Obama is not returning to his ancestral lands. But she understands the reasoning, and has tried to temper expectations. "I take the disappointment with a sense of pride," she says. "Barack came to Kenya to do work."

'Obama is our pride'

For all these reasons, Luos are not yet accepting that Obama will be a no-show. And they hope that bestowing on him the ultimate honor – membership in the esteemed but largely symbolic Luo Council of Elders – will bring him home.

Gesturing to his decorated walking stick, an accoutrement for his own position, Otondi, the council chairman, ticks off the gifts they will bestow on Obama for his new status: a three-legged stool that only he can use, a flywhisk, a headpiece, and a traditional garment.

One thing he won’t receive is the traditional shield, a symbol of strength, because “he’s already won the battle,” Otondi says.

Two other presidents have received the honor: Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Mr. Kibaki, pre-2007 election. But Obama is the first with the winning combination of president and Luo.

“The Luo are a very proud community, and Obama is our pride,” says Otondi. “Anywhere in the world, we know that our son is leading the most powerful country in the world.”

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