KOGELO, Kenya — Here, everyone’s an Obama.
On the morning that this East African nation’s favorite adopted son won the White House, villagers danced and sang, waved American flags and leafy branches that symbolize good fortune, prepared a feast complete with bulls and goats, and contemplated the idea that part of America’s next first family lives right here in western Kenya.
“I’m so happy, I don’t know if I’ll die of happiness,” Sarah Onyango Obama, President-elect Barack Obama’s 86-year-old step-grandmother, said outside her one-story farmhouse in the green hills above Lake Victoria.
Obama’s late father, Barack Obama Sr., was born in Kogelo (Sarah was his stepmother), and although father and son barely knew one another, Kenya has embraced Obama as an icon of triumph and possibility. As the nation celebrated his victory — Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki declared Thursday a public holiday — the distance from the cow pastures of Kogelo to the Rose Garden of the White House suddenly didn’t seem so great.
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“We have a president from this place,” marveled Mary Adhiambo, a 21-year-old mother, who lives in Kogelo and counts herself a cousin of the family. She was standing under a tree and watching wide-eyed as Mama Sarah, as she’s known here, addressed a throng of journalists trampling her lawn.
Looking regal in a flowing print dress and matching headscarf, surrounded by more than two dozen members of the extended Obama clan, she joked about expecting an invitation to the inaugural in Washington in January.
“Do you really think I’m going to be left behind?” she said.
She sounded a more somber note when recalling the passing of Obama’s maternal grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, on Sunday at age 86.
“It’s the only thing that tarnishes” the excitement, said Obama’s half-sister, Auma, whom he thanked in his acceptance speech in Chicago.
Throughout western Kenya, Obama’s victory felt like redemption. Many in the predominant Luo tribe — to which Obama’s father also belonged _ are still smarting from Kenya’s disputed presidential election last December, when a narrow loss by the Luo candidate, Raila Odinga, unleashed weeks of violence that killed more than 1,000 people and reignited tensions between Kenya’s many diverse ethnicities.
“In this country politics is too much about ethnicity. America is showing that leadership has no color,” said Samuel Otieno, an unemployed 23-year-old who watched the election results at a fairgrounds in Kisumu, the main city in western Kenya. a lakeside city an hour’s drive from Kogelo.
Obama has only been to Kogelo three times, but his mark here is unmistakable. Down the road from the family farm house is the Senator Obama Primary School, named for him on his last visit, in 2006. In Kisumu, radios blared a popular Luo song extolling “the son of Kogelo.”
Last week, in anticipation of crowds flocking to the home, the dirt road leading to the village was graded — a big deal in rural Kenya.
As dozens of family members and friends prepared for a giant luncheon — expected to include at least four bulls and several goats and chickens — television crews packed up their equipment and journalists who’d camped in the village overnight began to leave. Some in Kogelo felt that life might not be the same here again.
“This is something strange, seeing all these people who have never been here before,” said Adhiambo, the young mother, cradling her 3-month-old girl. “I think we’ll see a lot of changes.”