A Kenyan Transition To Power
Sunday, January 18, 2009
There she was again, a small, slightly bent figure in a bright yellow dress, walking out of her house to greet one more group of strangers. President-elect Barack Obama's Kenyan grandmother, who is 87 and has a bad knee, smiled and shook hands in the late afternoon.
Sarah Ogwel Onyango offered white plastic chairs to her unannounced guests -- a group of young students, some Kenyan officials, some Baptists from Nairobi -- and sat with them in the shade of an avocado tree, telling the visitors, as she has told thousands by now, how proud she is of her grandson, how she's preparing for the inauguration, how fine she is doing.
"She seemed tired," said one of the Baptists, Shem Okello, as he left the sprawling, grassy yard. "We told her not to worry about talking too much, but she pushed on. She said, 'That's why I'm here.' "
While the president-elect prepares to manage the high expectations of many Americans, members of his extended Kenyan family -- some of whom will attend the inauguration Tuesday -- are also busy managing a kind of international stardom conferred upon them by their famous, if distant, relative.
In a short span of time, the routines of their lives have been replaced by the trappings and oddities of global fame: crowds, bodyguards, tabloid stories and the varied, at times mystical, expectations of an awe-struck public.
But there is a particularly Kenyan dimension to the phenomenon: By tradition and tribal custom, families here expect their most successful members to share acquired largess, a process that in theory should begin with Obama himself and eventually trickle down to even the most distant of relatives and their villages. In a society that is often polygamous, where elders can sometimes recite a web of relations dating to the 18th century, the expectations are vast.
About 50 miles from here at the turnoff to the tiny village of Kobama -- where Obama's grandfather lived before he moved to Kogelo -- a newly erected sign makes the point.
"Obama Opiyo," it reads in big block letters, "Great . . . great . . . great grand father of Barack Obama, Jr. (President, USA)."
Up the dirt road, an array of Obama's second and third cousins, nephews twice removed and distant half uncles and aunts eke out a living as peasant farmers while trying to assume their ambassadorial roles.
"I'm a cousin to the guy," said Hussein Onyango, offering a tour that he has given journalists and visitors from as far away as Finland.
He walked into the small Obama family homestead, a collection of mud huts arranged according to the traditions of the Luo, Obama's Kenyan ethnic group, and into one of the larger homes.