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.

Sarah Onyango Obama reading Kenyan press coverage of the U.S. campaign at her rural homestead in Kogelo. Click image to expand.
Sarah Onyango Obama reading Kenyan press coverage of the U.S. campaign at her rural homestead in Kogelo

KOGELO, Kenya—Last Sunday morning, while Barack Obama stumped in Colorado, his paternal grandmother, 86-year-old "Mama Sarah" Obama, stood before a microphone and a crowd of several hundred villagers on a plot of land in Kogelo. Beside her was Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, whose helicopter had descended unexpectedly onto her tin-roofed homestead moments earlier. Streams of excited villagers ran across the surrounding corn and cassava fields and from a soccer game at Senator Barack Obama Secondary School.

Odinga addressed the crowd and the Kenyan TV cameras that followed him in Luo, the local tongue: "Today we have gathered here to say hello to Mama Sarah. The boy from here, he's gone to compete. We are praying for him so that he succeeds. Are you happy with Obama?"

"We are happy!" the crowd responded.

"Are you happy with him?"

"We are!"

Though I may have been the only person for miles around who actually has a vote in the U.S. presidential election, the occasion seemed oddly like a campaign rally. In a sense, it was. For Prime Minister Odinga, who, like the Obamas, belongs to the Luo tribe, and whose loss in a tainted presidential election last December touched off devastating ethnic violence, the appearance with Sarah Obama was not only an expression of solidarity, but also unambiguous political groundwork for what he might one day claim as a direct channel to the White House. For Obama's grandmother, the arrival of the Kenyan prime minister was another indication of how the phenomenal rise of an Obama child has changed the lives of the other Obama family half a world away.

Sarah Onyango Obama in her living room in Kogelo, as her grandson's likeness stands in the corner. Click image to expand.
Sarah Onyango Obama in her living room in Kogelo, as her grandson's likeness stands in the corner

"At the beginning, I thought it was something that would be short-lived, but it's been getting bigger every day," Obama's uncle Said had told me earlier that day on the drive from the provincial city in Kisumu for what I expected would be a quiet interview with the family matriarch. "It will continue to be a major preoccupation—or maybe my employment." Said wasn't referring only to his changed daily routine, which now involves rising at 4 a.m. to track the latest U.S. campaign news on Anderson Cooper 360—"people will ask me to comment on a development, and I don't want to be caught unawares"—before a full workday as a technician for a spirits company, followed by night school for his business management degree. Said was also referring to what it has meant, and what it may mean for at least the next four years, to be an Obama in Kenya: the frequent visits from people asking for money or help getting a U.S. visa; the requests to help sponsor scholarships for study in the United States; and the random pale faces, African dignitaries, and international journalists that have been arriving at Mama Sarah's home on a daily basis for the last year, paying respects and seeking favors and quotes.

"You can't fail to see there's a perception that we are in a better place economically," Said said. "People know that if you are in a senior position, you become rich. Leaders here steal. But our lives go on. We are a hardworking family. We should not just stand idly and think Barack is going to fix everything for us."

A 36-year-old cousin of Barack's, a hairdresser in Nairobi who has returned to Kogelo to support Mama Sarah during the final weeks of the campaign, told me that he tries to maintain a low profile. "I won't be able to walk freely," he said, asking that his name not be publicized out of concern for both unwanted attention and personal safety. His girlfriend, he added, doesn't even know about his family ties to the U.S. senator. "She might think I've been hiding money from her. She'll expect a lot." Last August, Italian Vanity Fair "discovered" Barack's half-brother George, who lives in the marginalized outskirts of Nairobi; his plight was sensationalized by international media and in turn exploited by conservatives who suggested that the candidate doesn't care for his own family. Because of the widely brachiated nature of the Kenyan Obama family tree, as for many traditional African families, notions of family are very complicated. Certainly, the Obamas that Barack seems closest with appear loved, financially secure, and not at all resentful.

A perception of family wealth was likely the motive of an attempted burglary of Mama Sarah's home in September. When I arrived at the homestead, I was met by armed Kenyan police officers posted behind a newly erected 8-foot fence. I was asked to sign a visitors log. Hundreds of names from all over the world had filled the book since the first entry on Sept. 16. The guards were securing what may be the world's most modest gated compound: With the exception of a small solar panel on the corrugated tin roof of Mama Sarah's two-room home, the most obvious signs of affluence appeared to be a pair of cows, which mooed as I walked in.

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.

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.