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?

When the future president journeyed to Kogelo in 1987, it was, he said, as if “a circle was beginning to close.” (Guillaume Bonn)
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During my last morning on Rusinga, Otuga led me up a sunbaked slope, known as Kiahera, above Lake Victoria. Beginning in the 1930s, Mary and Louis Leakey combed sites on Rusinga, searching for Miocene era fossils; during that period, between 18 million and 20 million years ago, a volcano near Lake Victoria had erupted and preserved the island’s animals and plants, Pompeii-like, beneath a layer of ash. On October 1, 1948, Mary made one of their most important discoveries. “I was shouting for Louis as loud as I could, and he was coming, running,” she recalled in her autobiography. She had glimpsed what biographer Virginia Morell describes in Ancestral Passions as “a glint of a tooth” on Kiahera’s eroded surface.

Using a dental pick, Mary Leakey chipped away at the hillside, gradually revealing a fragmented skull, as well as two jaws with a complete set of teeth. “This was a wildly exciting find,” Mary Leakey wrote, “for the size and shape of a hominid skull of this age so vital to evolutionary studies could hitherto only be guessed at.” The young paleontologist had uncovered an 18-million-year-old skull of a hominid, “remarkably human in contour,” the first persuasive evidence of human ancestors in Africa in the Miocene. Louis Leakey cabled a colleague in Nairobi that “we [have] got the best primate find of our lifetime.”

Otuga pulls out a ceramic replica of the Leakeys’ find. Western tourists, he says, have been moved by the historic importance of Kiahera—with the exception of an American pastor whom Otuga escorted here, with his family, last year. The churchman looked displeased by Otuga’s foray into evolutionary science and “told me that I was a bad influence on the kids,” Otuga says. “I was wondering why he came up here in the first place.” It is another indication that even here, in this remote and beautiful corner of East Africa, the culture wars that roil America are keenly observed, and felt.

Otuga led me back down the hillside. I stood at the edge of the lawn of Rusinga Island Lodge, taking in my last views of Lake Victoria. In 1948, while the Leakeys were pursuing their paleontological quest, Barack Obama Sr. was a schoolboy in the Luo highlands, not far from here, driven in part by his anger at white colonial privilege to educate himself and help reform the new nation of Kenya. Six decades later, as I’ve been reminded by my journey through the Luo highlands, this remains in many ways a deeply divided country. The divide is no longer so much between black and white, but between the privileged, well-connected few and the destitute many. Call them Kenya’s 99 percent. Barack Obama’s presidency in far-off America filled many ordinary Kenyans with unrealistic expectations, persuading them that their lives would be altered overnight. It has been left to dedicated realists like his sister Auma to bring them down to earth—and to convince them that transformation lies in their own hands.

Guillaume Bonn travels on assignment from Nairobi.


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