From Mauritania to Zimbabwe to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africans are chafing under longtime and deeply entrenched rulers they would like to see go. But in one corner of Kenya, a leader across an ocean is being mourned — for stepping down as the law demands.
As President Obama prepares to leave office, residents of this remote village are apprehensive of their future. “We are very worried people because Obama will soon be leaving the presidency,” Gerald Ochieng, a taxi driver who guides tourists around the village, told me. “I wish America becomes like Africa where a president can remain in power as long as people need him.”
Part of that has to do with Obama’s Kenyan roots, which have been a source of pride for Kogelo — a village of around 20,000 people near Lake Victoria, or a seven-hour drive over 250 miles from Nairobi. Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr., was born and later died here after he studied in the United States and worked as an economist for the Kenyan government. Today, the village’s most famous presidential relative is Mama Sarah Obama, 95, the president’s step-grandmother.
Kogelo first came to the American public’s attention in Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” Since Obama became president in 2008, the once sleepy village has become a tourist destination and kind of national shrine to the first African-American leader of the free world. The government brought electricity, a police station, and new roads to the village due to its celebrity.
“These projects are coming to the village because of our son Obama,” said Obama’s cousin Nicholas Rajula, who owns a resort in the village. “Without him, all these projects will not be here.”
A portrait of Obama hangs in nearly every household in the village. One of the best resorts in the region, The White House, features cottages named after President Obama, his wife, Michele, and daughters Malia and Sasha. And five institutions have sprung up here in the Obama family’s honor.
The Mama Sarah Obama Foundation cares for widows and orphans who have lost spouses and parents to HIV/AIDS. The Barack H. Obama Foundation, founded by the president’s half-brother, develops sources of clean drinking water. The Sauti Kuu Foundation, an international nongovernmental organization, headed by Dr. Auma Obama, the president’s half-sister, cares for disadvantaged children and young people.
The village’s two schools were renamed as the Senator Obama Secondary School and Senator Obama Primary School after Obama’s visit to the village in 2006. “Through him, very many people — donors — have come to help orphans and vulnerable children through Mama Sarah Obama’s foundation and others,” said Rajula.
Some villagers, like his half-brother Malik Obama, have criticized the president for not visiting the village during his presidency, especially when he came to Kenya last summer. But Obama still delighted Kogelo residents during his July 2015 trip by addressing their disappointment.
“Part of the challenge that I have had during the course of my presidency has been that given the demands of the job and the security bubble, I can’t come here and just go upcountry and visit for a week and meet everybody,” he said at the time.
Still, most Kogelo residents are thankful for the nongovernmental organizations that have descended on the village to address poverty, lack of shelter, and other problems common to rural Kenya.
“I didn’t have a nice house, but an organization has helped me to build a good house,” said George Otieno, a resident in the village. “Obama’s presidency has really helped us. Our children are going to school through these organizations that come to the village.”
A planned $15 million university is now set to become the greatest monument to President Obama in Kogelo.
Mama Sarah and others assume attention to Kogelo will flag after Obama’s term ends. They are probably right. But then they admit that the ultimate test of great leadership is what they leave behind.Tonny Onyulo is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi.