President Barack Obama’s economic record at home is hotly debated. But his ancestral hometown in western Kenya, a 10-hour journey from the capital Nairobi, is thriving.
Kogelo – the birthplace of Mr. Obama’s father and the place his grandmother, known here as Mama Sarah, still calls home – was vaulted to international fame when Mr. Obama was elected in 2008. The once remote village of 6,000 now draws a steady stream of visitors and has become a hub for local business.
Mr. Obama’s roots have been fodder for conspiracy theories and the “birther” controversy since his election. He was born in Hawaii, not in Kenya, but Kenya still pops up in campaign attacks. Just two weeks ago, the son of Wisconsin’s former Republican governor rallied a campaign crowd by saying, “We have the opportunity to send President Obama back to Chicago – or Kenya.”
But here in Kogelo, Mr. Obama’s Kenya connection, albeit through his father, is celebrated.
For instance, James Oduor, a local tailor, has seen his business flourish in the past four years: “After Barack Obama became the president, the centre opened for more people, so they’ve been flocking in,” he said, adding that “once a centre has been set up and more people come in and it makes more business, it will just continue going up.”
A state-sponsored facelift of the village also helped draw people to Kogelo. Right after the U.S. election, the Kenyan government connected the village to the power grid and drilled a borehole to provide the village with both electricity and clean drinking water for the first time. And within a year, it also built the village its first police station.
Most importantly to the people of the village, the government started to pave the road to Kogelo, a project nearing completion that will connect it to the road leading to Kisumu, the nearest urban centre.
The driving force, at least in the beginning, was Mama Sarah, now one of the best-known women in Kenya.
The plump 90-year-old woman, who has the piercing gaze of her U.S. grandson, receives four or five visitors a day in her walled compound, which includes a few small buildings and a main bungalow, topped by two satellite dishes. Meetings are by appointment only. She is not speaking to media, according to a family spokesman, but does meet people who make the pilgrimage to the town of Mr. Obama’s roots. The majority of them are Kenyan but, as her guest book reveals, a steady trickle of tourists arrive from countries as varied as the United States, Ghana, Spain, Sweden and Japan.
Once admitted inside after a stop at a guard station where they must show a passport, visitors can see the white gravestone marking where Mr. Obama’s father is buried. Guests are invited to sit on wicker chairs in a shaded space in front of Mama Sarah’s home until the great lady slowly emerges from the bungalow, her advancing age diminishing her pace, but not her smile. During one recent visit, she was dressed for company, her head covered by a silk scarf and wearing a loose dress dotted with large red and brown flowers. She spoke with her foreign guests through an interpreter, saying the steady flow of visitors doesn’t leave her many days off but that she loves meeting them.
Once Mr. Obama’s fame and his grandmother’s presence put Kogelo on the map, a local businessman saw an opportunity. On Mama Sarah Obama Road, Nicholas Rajula built a 30-room hotel, completed in December and nicknamed “the White House of Kogelo.” The Kogelo Resort stands out as the only multi-storey building in the village.
Mr. Rajula said Mama Sarah was the catalyst for economic development but she is no longer its only motor. He is trying to diversify his client base by attracting local government employees and non-governmental organizations that use his hotel for seminars and workshops. “As a businessman it is up to me to retain the visitors, look for them and make sure I give them something different from even the Obama presidency,” he said.
Business has been so good, he said, that he is building a second wing, with 30 more rooms.
Kogelo has also attracted the attention of cultural and educational groups, including NGOs seeking to advise the town on business and agricultural development and microfinancing. “We’ve also had occasional lecturers from local universities,” said Vitalis Akech Ogombe, chairman of the Obama Kogelo Cultural Centre. “They have been speaking to us about ecotourism, and even small business enterprises.”
The increase in local customers to Kogelo market, brought by the new road, has convinced vendors and shopkeepers that their economic fortunes are no longer tied to Mr. Obama’s political fortunes. “If Romney becomes president and Obama is not president anymore, we in Kogelo will still forge ahead,” Mr. Ogombe added. “What Obama did most importantly to the Kogelo people was to bring his friends to come and teach us or sensitive us on how to be self-reliant.”
Poverty is still endemic in the region where most families survive on subsistence farming. But Kogelo’s town clerk, Joseph Ogutu Ojala, believes it is investors, and not the link to Mr. Obama, who will ultimately make a difference. “Hunger is with us, poverty is with us,” he said. “Don’t think that if Obama is president then everybody in Kogelo is good. No, no, no, we have to struggle and do the work personally.”
Kogelo’s residents still hope that Mr. Obama might provide them with an extra boost by finally visiting the village as President of the United States (he visited the village in 2006 when he was a senator). “Then this place will be catapulted to serious fame all over the world,” said Mr. Rajula.