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When the future president journeyed to Kogelo in 1987, it was, he said, as if “a circle was beginning to close.” (Guillaume Bonn)

A Journey to Obama’s Kenya

The dusty village where Barack Obama’s father was raised had high hopes after his son was elected president. What has happened since then?

Between August 2008 and January 2009, hundreds of journalists from around the world descended on Nyang’oma Kogelo. “People got so excited,” I had been told by Auma Obama, the president’s half-sister (the daughter of Barack Obama Sr. and his first wife, Kezia) when we met in a Chinese restaurant in Nairobi the evening before my trip west. Auma, 52, studied German at the University of Heidelberg and earned a PhD at Germany’s University of Bayreuth. She then lived for a decade in London before resettling, with her daughter, in Nairobi in 2007. She is now a senior adviser to CARE International in Nairobi and started a foundation that, among other projects, teaches farming skills to teenagers in Nyang’oma Kogelo. Reticent about discussing her relationship with her half-brother, Auma is voluble about Nyang’oma Kogelo’s roller-coaster ride leading up to and during the Obama presidency. “People there had the feeling that ‘they were the chosen people,’” she told me. But the attention, she says, was “distracting and deceiving. It was like a soap bubble.”

A flurry of changes did improve the lives of some members of the community. Eager to showcase Nyang’oma Kogelo’s connection to the president, the government built a tarmac road, now two-thirds finished. The government also strung power lines to shops in the village center and to several families, dug a borehole and lay water pipes both to Mama Sarah Obama’s homestead and the Nyang’oma market. The flow of tour buses into Nyang’oma Kogelo has pumped a modest amount of cash into the local economy.

Other hoped-for improvements have not materialized. For several years, the government has promised to construct a million-dollar Kogelo Cultural Center. Today, the large plot of pastureland on the edge of town, donated by a local resident, stands empty.

Before Barack Obama visited the secondary school in 2006, the local council renamed the school in his honor. Many believed that the concrete buildings and scruffy fields would soon get a face-lift—possibly from Obama. It did not happen. “I tell them, of course, he is the U.S. president, not ours,” says geography teacher Dalmas Raloo. We’re sitting in a tin-roofed shelter built last year by an American tourist, after she noticed that students were eating lunch fully exposed beneath the broiling equatorial sun. The village’s unrealistic expectations, Raloo believes, reflect the passive mentality of people who have always “relied on grants and donations to get by.”

Raloo is working with Auma Obama to change that way of thinking. Obama’s two-year-old foundation, Sauti Kuu, Swahili for Powerful Voices, aspires to break the cycle of rural dependency and poverty by turning youths into small-scale commercial farmers. The program—in its pilot phase—identifies motivated kids between 13 and 19, persuades parents to turn over fallow land, then works with experts to grow crops to generate money for school fees. “Before, people believed in handouts,” says field supervisor Joshua Dan Odour, who has helped several teenagers bring their tomatoes to the local market. “We’re trying to introduce the concept that you can do much better things.” Obama says the kids understand her message: “You need to use the resources you have in order to succeed.”

Barack Obama glimpsed Lake Victoria on the drive from Nyang’oma Kogelo to meet the other branch of his family in Kendu Bay. In Dreams From My Father, he describes its “still silver waters tapering off into flat green marsh.” The largest lake in Africa and second-largest in the world, after Lake Superior, 27,000-square-mile Lake Victoria was formed about half a million years ago, in one of the periodic tectonic convulsions of the Great Rift Valley. It received its regal name from the British explorer John Hanning Speke, who reached its shores in 1858.

I had decided to stay at one of Lake Victoria’s most renowned tourist destinations. A 20-minute crossing from the mainland in a car ferry brought me to Rusinga Island, flat and gourd-shaped, nine miles long and five miles wide. The island has a population of 25,000 subsistence farmers and fishermen from the Suba tribe. We followed a dirt track past maize fields to the Rusinga Island Lodge, the former home of a British Kenyan family, converted into a luxury resort a quarter of a century ago. A dozen elegant, thatched-roof cottages were scattered amid palm, eucalyptus and mango trees. Pied kingfishers and other brightly colored avian species darted among the foliage. The garden sloped toward Lake Victoria, which sparkled beneath a searing sun.

After the heat had subsided in the late afternoon, I climbed into a launch, then motored out to explore the nearby islands. The boatman and guide, Semekiah Otuga, a Suba, identified a classical white marble structure looming above the cornfields as the mausoleum of Tom Mboya. A prominent Luo politician at the time of Kenya’s independence, he was widely seen as a likely successor to Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president. Mboya created a scholarship program in the late 1950s, enabling gifted Kenyans to attend universities abroad; among its beneficiaries was an ambitious young student of economics named Barack Obama Sr., who would become the first African exchange student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu. In 1969, possibly as the result of a plot organized by his political rivals, Mboya was shot dead in downtown Nairobi.

Otuga steered toward Takawiri Island, one of 3,000 islands strewn across Lake Victoria. We beached the craft on a strip of white sand framed by coconut palms. Tucked behind the palms were a dozen cobwebbed cabins from a business venture gone awry: the Takawiri Island Resort. Envisioned by its owners as a magnet for Lake Victoria tourism, the hotel suffered from a lack of visitors and was forced to close in 2003.

Just beyond Takawiri, we anchored between two chunks of black rock known as the Bird Islands. Thousands of long-tailed cormorants, attracted by schools of Nile perch and tilapia, roosted in the island’s fig trees and dead white oaks—a vision from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds come to life. We drank Tusker beers in the fading light, and then, beneath a near-full moon, Otuga started up the engines and sped back to Rusinga.

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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