The media descend on Obama's Kenyan family.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 28 2008 2:36 PM

Dropping In on Obama's Kenyan Grandmother

What it means to be an Obama in Africa.

(Continued from Page 1)

Mama Sarah's living room had obviously been configured to accommodate visiting delegations. Several wood couches and chairs were neatly arranged arm-to-arm around the perimeter of the cement floor, their cushions covered by plain white cloths with embroidered fringes. A television draped in a decorative cloth sat atop a table in one corner, and a life-size photo cutout of a smiling Barack presided over the room from another. Other Barack memorabilia and family portraiture hung from the walls: a framed black-and-white image of Barack Obama Sr., an image of Sasha and Malia Obama watering a seedling in front of a Masai tribesman while Barack snapped a picture, and an autographed poster from Barack's Illinois state Senate campaign, signed, "Mama Sarah: Habari! And Love."

"Barack is a good listener," Mama Sarah told me. "He is somebody who pays attention to the plight of people. With those kinds of attributes, I think he will be in a better position to sort out the problems that are bedeviling the world. I think he's got all it takes to be a world leader." Clearly reining in her normally spontaneous personality, Mama Sarah was proud and on-message: "We are leaving everything to God. We know it's been a long wait, and, God willing, we hope that everything is going to be OK."

The day before, in Kisumu, I was talking about Obama to a boatman on Lake Victoria when a nearby car radio blared the following judgment: "God has already chosen Obama on Nov. 4! Who are you to say no?" Nowhere in Kenya—perhaps nowhere in the world outside of blue-state America—is there more optimism about an Obama victory as in Kisumu, a predominantly Luo city on Kenya 's western border with Uganda, which still bears the scars of last winter's election violence. Indeed, the widely held fear that vote-rigging on Nov. 4 could snatch the election from Obama reflects the lingering sentiment among Luos here that Kenya's tainted presidential election—in which Odinga officially lost to Mwai Kibaki—was stolen from them. I've been asked several times, "Do you think John McCain can steal the votes?"

Obama merchandise for sale in Kisumu. Click image to expand.
Obama merchandise for sale in Kisumu

Obama's likeness appears on watch faces, key chains, posters, T-shirts, calendars, and women's shoes. Hawkers offer CDs of Obama-inspired reggae and Luo songs in the open-air bus depot. Mockups of $1,000 bills with Obama's portrait filling the oval are plastered on public minivans. ("I just asked the designer to pimp the van, and it came back like this," the driver told me.) A generation of newborns named "Obama" are entering the world. A schoolteacher in a local village says her students sing Obama songs: "He is a genius/ He is a hero/ He comes all the way from Africa/ To go compete in the land of the whites/ He makes us proud/ For at least he's made Africa known to the world." The campaign 8,000 miles away has been closely observed. When I arrived in town, my tuk-tuk driver offered punditry of the third debate: "For the first 20 minutes, it was competitive and McCain was good, but then Obama was much smarter."

Daniel Otieno, the local bureau chief of Kenya's the Nation newspaper, believes the fierce partisanship is a legacy of the area's early bullfighting days, when Luo clans rallied behind their favored bull. "Barack Obama is their bull," he says, adding that "a victory on Nov. 4 will be felt as a consolation for the Kenyan election." Bundled with that pride is an exaggerated expectation that Obama will support Kenya, and especially the Kisumu area, currently crippled by the country's highest incidence of HIV/AIDS. Unemployment here is rampant, and many of the young and jobless I spoke with believe an Obama presidency will directly improve their lives—a belief that I hope does not turn into resentment if and when they are disappointed.

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While the TV cameras rolled in front of Mama Sarah's home, Prime Minister Odinga attempted to temper these expectations. "Kenyans know that Barack will be first and foremost the president of the United States of America, not a Kenyan president in the United States." He added, "Under an Obama presidency, trade and investment between Kenya and the United States will increase. Kenyans hope that there will be more scope for cooperation. We also think that Africa will get more attention than it has received in the past."

With that, Odinga and Mama Sarah walked toward the car that would drive the prime minister to his helicopter. He was a step ahead of her, and just as it seemed he was about to get into the car, a reporter reminded him that Mama Sarah was behind him, anticipating a goodbye. Odinga turned, offered a warm and genuine embrace, and then drove out of the compound.

The villagers dissipated, the reporters disassembled their tripods and climbed into SUVs, and Mama Sarah headed toward the house. Said called out, "Intercept her!" Then he led her by the arm to a waiting chair in the shade of an avocado tree, where a Canadian TV crew was setting up for an interview.

Andy Isaacson is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the San Francisco Bay Area.

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