In Obama's ancestral home, locals hope to cash in on presidential visit

In the tiny village of Kogelo, home to President Obama's step-grandmother, savvy businessmen have built an 'Obama circuit' that has yet to become a tourist hub. But a visit from the president this weekend could turn their fortunes around.

Ariel Zirulnick
Mama Sarah (l.), as President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is known nationwide, chats with two Swedish tourists and their translator at her home in Kogelo, Kenya. The matriarch's home, which President Obama first visited in 1988 as a young man, has become a tourist attraction.

President Barack Obama’s 2008 election brought hope to this rural village – a hope that foreign tourists would flock to his step-grandmother’s humble home, browse a local museum, and bed down at the local hotel, which was built to capitalize on the expected boom of being the ancestral home of America’s first black president.

This informal tour, known as the "Obama circuit" is little more than a half-mile stroll on a dirt road within the village where President Obama's father was raised. There is the home of Mama Sarah, as President Obama’s step-grandmother is affectionately known, where turkeys and chickens strut and squawk, and the Barack H. Obama Recreation Center, a reception hall and restaurant run by the president’s half-brother, Malik. You can also peek in at the Senator Obama Kogelo Secondary School, which took on Obama’s name after his 2007 visit, which is commemorated with newspaper clippings on the walls of the classrooms.

And if you are willing to stay the night, there is the Kogelo Village Resort. The main building is dubbed “The White House” and there’s a life-size statue of Obama and Mama Sarah under construction at the entrance. You can even sleep in the “Sasha and Malia” private cottage (or one named after one of the other family members).

Aspirations of the Obama lore drawing tourists to Kogelo, and then to the national parks and cultural icons around it,  haven’t materialized in the almost seven years since he came into office. On the Monday before western Kenya’s most famous son returns to the country, there was no one staying at the hotel. The satellite county tourism office set up on the road between the Obama homestead and the hotel was closed. No one sold Obama paraphernalia in the market.

The only tourists spotted over a few hours were two young Swedes who rode out of town on a motorbike after their sit-down with Mama Sarah on her front porch. Her jokes are good – “Come back to Kogelo and marry a villager so we can have more Luos like Obama,” she told this reporter – but she alone can’t keep the crowds coming.

But banking on Obama’s name requires the occasional appearance by the president to attract visitors. And his decision on whether to stop in during his visit to Kenya this weekend – where hopes are still high that he will come despite announcing otherwise – could affect these businesses’ fortunes for years.

“It has been quiet because of this information that he’s no longer coming to Kogelo,” says Nicholas Rajula, the owner of the Kogelo Village Resort and, he says, a distant cousin of the president.

Banking on a president

Mr. Rajula acknowledged that business generally pretty quiet now, but that wasn’t always true. In the initial euphoria after Obama was elected in 2008, tourists flocked to Kogelo. But there was nothing to keep them for more than an hour or two.

“We lost a lot of business at the time. There was not even a place to buy mineral water,” he says.

The demand convinced him to build his hotel. And he has some good months, usually when government officials have a multi-day meeting in or around Kogelo. But the Obama tourists rarely stay overnight.

“Most international tourists come for that family,” Joseph Ogutu, Siaya County’s chief tourism officer, says. “So many go direct to Mama Sarah. Many of them leave that same day. That’s what we want to change.”

This weekend, though, while Obama is 250 miles away chairing the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, there are big things planned. The Siaya County Government has planned a multi-day extravaganza that will happen whether or not Obama shows up. It took out a full-page newspaper advertisement earlier this week to spread the word about a three-day rugby tournament called the Obama Sevens, investment and cultural expos, and a half-marathon in early August at a nearby lake. Wearily, he says the local government spent almost $100,000 on the events.

Mr. Ogutu’s hope is that Obama tourists will linger on the shores of Lake Victoria doing watersports, explore nearby nature reserves, and check out Luo artifacts at the Jaramogi Odinga Odinga Museum.

But excitement has waned in the face of news Obama won’t come to Western Kenya. 

Hosea Owour, who sells Obama paraphernalia in Kisumu, says that after weeks of rising sales, they plummeted last week at the news that Obama would skip the region. After Obama’s 2008 election win, Mr. Owuor traveled to Kogelo and sold 50 of the 100 shirts he brought to the village. On a recent trip, he sold only 15 of the 100.

Referring to the fact that Obama won’t come, local preacher Walter Akeche, says, “That is the end of this place as a tourist destination, an investment destination, and as a place people can be proud to be associated with.”

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