In Obama’s Kenyan village, locals celebrate reelection and progress

By Jason Patinkin

Kogelo, Kenya: In Barack Obama’s ancestral village, locals held election watches Tuesday night and jubilant celebrations after his reelection. Though some locals recall larger parades in 2008, the election repeat is as sweet here as the first, pushing aside doubts about villagers’ support for Obama. Some Kenyans have criticized Obama for not visiting the country as president. But in Kogelo, where the president’s father’s family lives, people have seen real change ever since Obama’s ascendency put the tiny hamlet on a global stage.

Crispin Ochieng, a subsistence farmer, danced all night in a floppy red, white, and blue hat while watching the polls, and remembers the celebrations four years ago. “This road was very bumpy in 2008. We had no electricity,” he said. “Now we are getting them all.” In addition to paved roads and power lines, the rural western Kenyan village has a new police station by the house of Mama Sarah, third wife of Obama’s grandfather. And a new upscale resort employs seventeen people, hoping to capitalize on a minor tourism boom. The development comes mostly from local Kenyan government eager to promote their association with America’s first black president.

 In Obama’s Kenyan village, locals celebrate reelection and progress

Sarah Obama, step-grandmother of President Barack Obama, speaks to the media about her reaction to Obama's re-election. AP

Mary Achien, a mother who owns a small general store, thinks Kogelo will receive more benefits because of the reelection. “We may even get clean water in the villages,” she hopes. Today, though, she is focused on celebrating after a sleepless night watching the polls. “I’m going to slaughter a sheep. This is a big and very happy occasion.”

Nearly everyone here supports the village’s most famous grandson. In a mock election that took place by the village market Tuesday morning, Obama beat Romney 146 votes to twelve. Roads and the local school in Kogelo are named after Obama, and everyone beams with joy over the “son of this land.”

There were three election watch parties planned for Tuesday night in Kogelo, where due to the time difference the first polls didn’t close until after midnight. But thunderstorms and power outages limited the festivities Tuesday afternoon to one outdoor gathering at the resort. By 11 pm, restored electricity allowed steady viewing of election coverage on flat screen TVs. Still, most people danced to a Luo drum group instead of watching.

By dawn, only a few dozen people sat in rows of plastic chairs, watching results on a single screen. More villagers filtered in, when Obama took a lead in the electoral college, and the crowd began clapping for each state victory. With the announcement of reelection, everyone leapt to their feet and broke into traditional songs and dancing, holding their chairs aloft and pouring into the street as a cadre of reporters recorded the euphoria. When Barack’s half-brother Malik drove past, he beamed and waved, shouting “thank you! thank you!” to the adoring crowd.

Malik drew on his half-brother’s fame to open a community center and restaurant in Kogelo called the Barack H Obama Foundation, but he is quick to point out that the town’s association to Obama can be overstated. “We have our own lives,” he said, explaining that the foundation does not rely on Barack. “I don’t know if [the connection] has helped much other than the link in name.”

This year, the election parties are smaller than in 2008. Razick Magak is a cousin of Barack Obama who remembers the parties last time. “The field was full of big crowds at Mama Sarah’s place, and bulls were slaughtered here.” This year, many villagers stayed home. “Maybe there was fear he won’t claim presidency, he said. “Also since he was elected he hasn’t come to Kenya.”

Indeed, Obama traveled to Sub-Saharan Africa just once in his first term, to Ghana in July 2009. And others are disappointed in his African policies that they say focus on fighting terror rather than poverty. Yet in Kogelo there was little if any bitterness. An elder named Sylvans Joseph Oyengo explained Obama’s absence over the past four years. “He was a little busy,” Oyengo said. Still, Oyengo hopes Obama will find time to visit in the next four years.

The crowd paraded to Mama Sarah’s house, where police carefully guarded the ninety-year-old matriarch from the hundreds of cheering well wishers. At a brief press conference Mama Sarah says this year’s election is even better than the first, even if the celebrations are smaller. “I rate this one higher because it was euphoria that brought him to office the first time,” she said. “This is more meaningful because it is the decision of the American people after seeing his work.”

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Updated Date: Nov 07, 2012 14:18:34 IST