Barack Obama's ancestral village of Kogelo stills wrestles with poverty and disease

Many hoped the President's role would mean prosperity. Seven years later, people are disappointed he waited so long for his first visit to Kenya as President

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Barack Obama Okoth was tugging at his Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, trying to remember everything he could about the man he was named after.

“He lives in America, and he’s a king,” the seven-year-old said after a long pause. It’s easy to understand why the young Barack would think so. He attends Senator Barack Obama Primary School, a stop on the Barack Obama Safari Tour, near a hotel that offers a Barack Obama Suite.

For as long as Barack has been alive, his village has been peppered with tributes to his namesake, the American President whose father was born here in 1936. Thousands of tourists have come to see the village that President Obama described in his memoirs – writing that his life’s trajectory “was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away”.

After Mr Obama was elected, electricity arrived in Kogelo, the only road to the village was paved and a Kenyan security detail was dispatched.

A photo of Barack Obama with family on her wall in Kogelo, taken during a visit in 2006, when he was still a senator (Getty)

And next month, Mr Obama will make his first trip to Kenya as President. If he returns to Kogelo, he’ll find a village lifted by its association with the world’s most powerful man, but still wrestling with disease and poverty.

He will also find people proud enough to name their boys Barack Obama but disappointed that he waited until the seventh year of his presidency before he returned to his father’s homeland.

“When he comes, we will present our problems,” said Edwin Okoth, Barack Obama Okoth’s father, his hands on his son’s shoulders. It’s not only Kogelo that remains unsatisfied. Given the President’s familial connection to East Africa, many expected Mr Obama to transform America’s relationship with the region. That hasn’t happened. The White House has launched an initiative to expand access to electricity across the continent, and provided increased funding for public health and counter-terrorism programmes, but by most measures, Africa has remained stranded on the periphery of Mr Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

“As a country, we expected more,” said Augustus Muluvi, head of foreign policy at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis. “We expected him to come earlier and we expected him to come with specific programmes for Kenya and East Africa. This hasn’t been the case.”

Edwin Okoth remembers when Mr Obama visited Kogelo in 2006 as a senator. When Mr Obama walked through the village’s open-air market, a crowd gathered.

Mr Okoth got as close as he could and waved. It amazed him that a man just one generation removed from Kogelo could become so important. When Mr Okoth’s wife became pregnant the following year, he knew that they would name the baby boy Barack Obama.

“Maybe the spirit of the man will follow the boy,” he remembers thinking.

The small hospital where Barack Obama Okoth was born is also where hundreds of HIV/Aids patients are treated. Nearly 18 per cent of people in Siaya County, where Kogelo is located, are HIV positive, according to Kenya’s National Aids Control Council, nearly three times the national  average.


In 2006, Mr Obama took an HIV test here, an effort to remove the stigma from the exam. But since then, the fight against the disease has run up against cultural barriers to prevention and a lack of public health funding. “We have been waiting for assistance from outside,” said the clinic’s doctor, George Musa.

Also in 2006, Mr Obama visited the village’s primary and secondary schools, which his father had attended. The schools were promptly renamed after him.

And although some aid funds arrived when Mr Obama became President, mostly from individual donors, the schools remain largely unchanged, with many students still dropping out before they reach high school because the fees are too expensive for their families.

In Barack Obama Okoth’s first grade classroom last week, there were 84 students in one room.

“What’s seven plus three?” the teacher asked. She paused before choosing who to call on. “Obama,” she said. There was a brief moment of confusion – because the class had two Barack Obamas.

Barack Obama Okoth stood up, but his nerves caught up with him. He froze in place before opening his mouth.

“Nine?” he said.

“Anyone else?” the teacher asked. The boy sat back down. His mother had sewn the word “Obama” on his backpack, and he wore it everywhere, even now that he was sitting down in class.

His father had explained what it meant to carry the name, the expectations that came along with it. It’s a sentiment repeated across Kenya.

“Huenda akawa Obama,” croons the group Sauti Sol in Swahili in one of Kenya’s most popular songs. “Maybe you will be Obama.”

Edwin Okoth is proud of his job as a motorcycle taxi driver. The income is reliable and it keeps him from descending into alcoholism, like so many others in Kogelo. But he wanted more for his son. Barack Obama Okoth would learn English, he said. He would go to college.

“I’m going to be a doctor,” said Barack Obama Okoth, standing outside Kogelo’s market. His father smiled.

Barack Obama on a visit to Kenya in 2012 (AFP)

Mr Obama’s visit to Kenya will focus on the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, where the President will probably emphasise the vast economic potential and innovation in East Africa, now home to dozens of small tech start-ups.

For its part, though, Kogelo has remained mostly untouched by the kinds of innovation visible in places such as Nairobi. If he does end up going to college, Barack Obama Okoth would be a very rare exception.

Last week, a group of French donors were scheduled to visit Barack Obama Secondary School, where they were expected to offer funds for renovations.

But at the last minute, the donors learned that the school didn’t possess a deed for the land on which it was built, another sign of Kogelo’s undeveloped economy. They cancelled their trip.

“It’s a big inconvenience,” said the principal, Henry Odongo, as the children waited to perform a dance planned in honour of the now-cancelled visit.

But that visit paled in comparison to the one Kogelo was really waiting for. A local radio programme had announced that Mr Obama would “visit Kogelo for three hours”. Though the White House hasn’t confirmed that report, it was enough to send a shock wave of excitement through the village.

Would his helicopter land on a farm? Would he finally pledge financial assistance? Would he dine with his grandmother, Sarah Obama, who still lives in Kogelo, in a small house with a red roof?

Residents of Kogelo could only guess at the details. Nicholas Rajula, owner of Kogelo Village Resort, got to work fixing up his hotel. He even hired an artist to make a life-size sculpture of the American President.

“We need to be ready,” he said, standing in front of the hotel’s restaurant, which is called the White House.

Edwin Okoth was getting ready, too. This time, he would get closer to the President. He would bring his son forward and make the introduction.

“I will tell him, ‘This is my son, Barack Obama’.” 

© The Washington Post