Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Back in Kenya, Granny Sarah waits for Obama to return in Air Force One

The wife of Barack Obama's grandfather tells Daniel Howden why she is taking nothing for granted on 4 November

Sarah Onyango Obama, 86, who raised Mr Obama's father, at her home in Kogelo, Kenya. Her television is solar-powered because there is no electricity in her village

At Kisumu airport, on the shores of the vast Lake Victoria, work has begun to expand the runway. The joke here is that they're getting ready for the arrival of Air Force One. Once as college graduate, once as a professor and again as a senator, Barack Obama has returned to his ancestral home. Now everyone is waiting for him to come back a fourth time, as the president of the United States.

It was here, amid the brilliant greens and grinding poverty of tropical Kenya, that the candidate's absent father Barack Hussein Obama grew up. It is still home to the 87-year-old woman the would-be leader of the free world calls Granny Sarah.



Despite her celebrity, the surviving wife of the US senator's grandfather lives in the same two-room hut in the remote village of Kogelo, more than an hour's drive from Kisumu along a pot-holed highway and then a rich-red dirt road.



In the middle of the "small plot of land" the Democrat hopeful described in his best-selling memoir, Dreams From My Father, stands Sarah Onyango Obama, an impossibly boisterous figure for someone born before America's Great Depression. While not a blood relative of the presidential candidate – she was the third wife of his paternal grandfather – Sarah did raise his father. A complicated family life has left her uncertain how many grandchildren she does have but she's happy with the answer, "Many".



She has a priceless smile which breaks her creased and weathered face and she sticks her tongue out and rolls her hips when she laughs, which is often. She claims to have known for some time that Barack Jnr, whom she met when he came to Kogelo for the first time at the age of 27, was destined for greatness. "I had a dream again and again where I would see him being carried high by his grandfather. I knew he was special." Unlike everyone else you meet here, she avoids predicting the outcome on 4 November. "In a football match, you don't count a goal until it is scored."



In the half-light inside the hut, "Barry" (as she calls him) is everywhere. He smiles down from framed photographs, graces a 2005 calendar proclaiming him "Kenya's miracle boy" and, disconcertingly, stands at a little over 5ft tall next to the sofa, in the form of a cardboard cut-out.



A quieter presence in the room is the ghost of Mr Obama's father, a man he barely knew. Obama Snr attended the University of Hawaii on a scholarship in 1952 where he met and married Ann Dunham, and left her pregnant. His round, bespectacled face competes for wall space with his son, and Sarah says that while it is God's choice he is not here he would have enjoyed the presidential race. "He loved that kind of thing," she says. Mr Obama's father died in a car crash in 1982. He is buried in the garden with a concrete headstone covered with yellow tiles.



Granny Sarah reminds everyone that she realises the fuss is not about her. "These are not my guests, they are his and I am duty-bound to receive them." And she receives hundreds. As we speak, there are at least a dozen visitors crammed into her sitting-room. There is a local DJ, a popular comedian, teachers and a rapidly extending family; in Kenya everyone claims to be related to Obama.



In this whirl of well-wishers, the woman who has lived her life in the relative seclusion of Kogelo insists little has changed. As if to make her point, a chicken wanders in from the back garden across the cracked concrete floor, pecking at the box of a new television set bought to help Granny Sarah follow election night a world away in America. A solar panel powers it, because electricity, and mains water, have yet to make it this far.



With an outcome across the Atlantic not expected before dawn in Kenya on 5 November, will she be staying up? "Of course I will," she says. "Even if I go to sleep, I will keep the radio with me, next to my ear." If her grandson does win, she will definitely be going to the inauguration. She feigns a frown and says Mr Obama would "complain if I didn't go".



The television is not the only sign of change. A new wire fence surrounds the garden with its banana palms, mango and avocado trees. Concrete is still setting in the foundations of a metal gate, and two green tents house the police post set up after boys broke in. All they stole was food and a lightbulb but no one wants to take any chances with this celebrated granny.



Asked what an Obama victory might mean for Kenya, Sarah speaks of peace and the hope that he will "solve some problems" both in the country where he is running and the country of his father. The campaign clashes of the Democrat and Republican tribes may seem fierce but they are nothing compared to the ferocity of the tribal politics that exploded in Kenya after the last elections.



When President Mwai Kibaki was accused by the challenger Raila Odinga of stealing the election, the country was racked by political violence which in turn revealed tribal tensions simmering since independence. Kenya's smaller ethnic groups clashed with the President's Kikuyu people. More than 1,000 were killed and tens of thousands displaced to tribal homelands.



Kisumu is the heartland of the Luo, the ethnic group of both Mr Odinga (now Prime Minister of Kenya), and the Obama clan. Though a fragile power-sharing deal has halted clashes, central Kisumu still bears the scars from the violence, with burnt-out shop-fronts and a resurgent sense of ethnic pride. Here, no one questions whether the boy who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii can be called a Luo. Absilom Omollo is a DJ with Lake Victoria radio . "The Luo own him jealously," he says. "He is our son."



The awareness of the finer points of the race for the White House is phenomenal. Florida demographics, Republican dirty tricks and the racial blind spot in opinion surveys are common currency in conversation. "On air, we have been following the polls on a two-hourly basis," says the DJ. "And we know who we are for. We say, 'We are ahead 12 points from the old man'."



Nicholas Rajula, a local politician and cousin of the US senator, is convinced he will win:"Only those who don't know Barry are worried." He insists beating Hillary Clinton in the primaries was the toughest challenge and believes the McCain campaign erred fatally in picking Sarah Palin as running mate.



"She's not ready", is his verdict. His cousin's African attributes are obvious to Mr Rajula. "Even when the old man is abusing him, he stays calm and doesn't answer back. That is respect for elders."



But the US campaign trail is also seen through the prism of Kenya's own political traumas. "We wish America peaceful elections," he keeps repeating. Others joke that they've heard of "Kenyan voting", or election rigging, going on. There are darker currents too.



Many here feel that their local political champion, Mr Odinga, should be Kenya's president. There is little patience for a second presidential setback, and many predict riots or looting in Kisumu if voters half a world away choose John McCain instead.



Clifford Anyango, a young teacher who resembles Mr Obama in his calm demeanour, hopes for an Obama victory for a different reason. "If Americans vote for a black man it will be a victory against racism, the same racism that here boils down to tribalism, nepotism and ends up meaning you can't even get a job."

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