Barack Obama, where the journey began

2008-11-07 00:00

United States president-elect, Barack Obama’s story is the stuff of fairy tales. He has made history by becoming the first African-American president since independence in 1776.

And for Kenya, it is the overwhelming emotions of ownership of Obama’s history, as his blood and roots are traced to Nyang’oma, Kogelo village in Siaya District, Nyanza Province, where he’s fondly known as Ja Kogelo (man from Kogelo).

Obama happened to Kenya and the Kenyans have just had to sit back and relish the limelight that comes when his origins are mentioned. In line with African tradition, his achievement will be classed as that of “the boy who became a man”, an old accolade that was reserved for young warriors who went out to fight and returned home clutching the trophy of victory. This is exactly what he did by returning to Kenya in November 2004 when he became the Illinois senator. Kenyans will now forever view him as the man who brought great honour to Kenya in the Land of Opportunity.

Long before Kenyans knew who he was, apart from a small group of family and friends, he had been rising on the path that would elevate him to the pinnacle of American power and live the August 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, part of which reads: “I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”

For Kenya and Africa the dream proclaimed in that historic speech unfurls in the immeasurable pride of sharing in Obama’s momentous piece of world history. And he announced his arrival on the U.S.’s national stage with a cautionary reminder: “Let’s face it,” he said in the U.S.

Democratic Convention in 2004. “My presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya.” And Kenyans cannot forget the moment in 1987 when Obama retraced his steps to his father’s country and visited Kogelo village where his father, Barack Obama Snr, is buried. He rode in a bus from Kisumu City with his stepsister, Auma Obama, to Nyang’oma Kogelo village where he met his grandmother, Sarah Obama, now 86 years old.

Those who had an encounter with the senator said there was nothing special about the 26-year-old other than that he was born in the U.S. and that when a bed that had been made for him to sleep on could not get into his grandmother’s hut, he slept on the floor. In the morning, Obama carried his grandmother’s sack of sukuma wiki (kales) to Kogelo market where it was sold. In the evening, he would help her carry her groceries in a dirty, tattered sack on his back. A photo of him carrying the sack of vegetables on his back as she watches hangs on the wall of Sarah’s house.

Today, Ja Kogelo has his hand on the pulse of the greatest nation on Earth. Kenya shares in the epoch-making moment for having sired this warrior who was left out there by his father but who has brought great pride back home to Africa.

And at about noon on January 20, 2009, through a formal handshake on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington DC, American power, in all its majesty and grandeur, will pass from President George W. Bush to President-elect Obama. On that day, Kenya shall provide a footnote to this edifying story, where it all began.

• Tiema Haji Muindi is a Kenyan journalist living in Durban.

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