Obama’s Kenyan Hometown In Disbelief At His No-Show

Residents cried at the snub after "Obama Night" plans were pared down

An autographed Senatorial campaign poster for U.S. President Obama. — REUTERS
Jul 28, 2015 at 8:01 AM ET

When President Barack Obama first announced his visit to Kenya, the people of Siaya thought for sure he would visit Kogelo to see his father’s grave. Siaya is the home county of Obama’s family and the Luo ethnic group, one of the largest ethnic groups in Kenya.

His step-grandmother, Mama Sarah, who he calls “Granny,” told the press she would cook chicken, fish and ugali—maize porridge—for his visit. A local radio station announced he had plans to be in town for three whole hours.

People painted signboards, local entrepreneurs made T-shirts, towns were cleaned, public buildings were painted, public parks seeded. “We wanted it to look nice and green for President Obama,” said Elkanah Odembo, who served as Kenya’s ambassador to the United States from 2010-2013 and is also from Siaya and the Luo tribe.

The celebrations across Siaya were to be called “Obama Night.” They included an investment forum “showcasing investment opportunities in the county,” said Odembo. Rams, goats and bulls were assembled.

But then, shortly before his trip, the president announced he would not be visiting the area and a couple dozen close family members, including Mama Sarah, were called to Nairobi to see him there instead. Hysteria ensued. Residents called into local radio shows wailing in disbelief. Columnists chided him. Local witch doctors tossed shells and animal bones on the ground, claiming it wasn’t true and the president would indeed come. Online, Kenyans voiced their disapproval.

The president had already come to spend time with his family and visit his father’s grave three times before. Schools were named after him, students too. But since his last visit, when he was still a senator, the roofs of those schools started to leak. Siaya County remained riddled with disease, with three times the national AIDS rate. The president has yet to meet his Siayan namesakes.

And while skipping out on an anticipated trip to visit his father’s grave caused mass disappointment in the region, local politicians insist the president addressed the people from Siaya directly in his speech at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.

“He was in a sense sounding sympathetic to the plight of the people of his fatherland,” said Opiyo Wandayi, a member of parliament in Siaya.

When Obama talked about mortality rates he was really addressing the lack of resources in Siaya, Wandayi told Vocativ.

“Sometimes the people at the top do very well but ordinary people still struggle,” Obama said in his remarks. “Today a young child in Nyanza province is four times more likely to die as a child in central province. Even though they are equal in dignity in the eyes of god, that’s a gap that has to be closed.”

Siaya is in Nyanza province. “The people in Siaya felt significantly recognized,” said Wandayi.

“[The President] said that because of corruption a lot of Kenyans have lost opportunities,” said Wandayi. “Siayan Kenyans are amongst these Kenyans.”

The speech was “a wake up call to the leadership,” said Wandayi.

Peter Anyang Nyong’o, Siayan senator and father of Oscar-winning actress Lupita, said that given the political climate in Kenya he was surprised the president made the trip at all.

“We’ve gone through a very difficult period politically,” said Nyong’o. “How do you marry that with a visit with the U.S. president to Kenya?”

“That doesn’t change the fact that the level of the ordinary people are expecting to see him and that is kind of an unfortunate situation where we’re caught between the devil and the big blue sea.”

“We really were expecting him to come down to see the family and also to touch base,” said Aggrey Omondi, a community developer in Siaya who attended the president’s speech in Nairobi.

But Omondi says that despite his disappointment about the visit, he was not disappointed with the president’s talk: “He put emphasis on nondiscrimination. One thing which is very clear is whatever [the] U.S. will provide will benefit all Kenyans.”

For now Omondi says he is meeting with local politicians, strategizing other ways Siaya can benefit from the president’s visit, and like the rest of Siaya, waiting for the day when Obama finally comes back to Siaya to visit himself.