Family Affair Stretches Across the Ocean

In Kisumu, Kenya, dozens gather at the Jomo Kenyatta Sportsground to celebrate the inauguration. Most of those who live in the city are of the Luo tribe, from which President Obama has his roots. Several people from Kisumu attended the inauguration here.
In Kisumu, Kenya, dozens gather at the Jomo Kenyatta Sportsground to celebrate the inauguration. Most of those who live in the city are of the Luo tribe, from which President Obama has his roots. Several people from Kisumu attended the inauguration here. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In the hours before Barack Obama was sworn in as president, as celebrities flitted through town and the beautiful and the powerful began to party, the African cousins of the soon-to-be leader of the free world clambered into the back of a van for the long ride from their National Harbor hotel to a house in Silver Spring.

There would be no balls or fancy suits for this trio, a shopkeeper, biology teacher and banking professor on their first visit to America. Dressed in casual slacks and bundled against an unfamiliar cold, they were headed to an impromptu gathering of Kenyans at a local businessman's home.

"We have come to welcome our son!" one of their countrymen exclaimed in Swahili as life-size images of President Obama filled the big-screen TV in the basement party room.

During a day of historic and unusual firsts, the mere presence in Washington yesterday of more than 30 Obama relatives from Kenya was living testimony to the theme of the day: transformation. Obama has often told the story that "only in America" could the son of a man who grew up herding goats in a dusty African village become president of the United States. In his inaugural speech, he made note of that extraordinary journey, referring to "the small village where my father was born."

As the new president spoke, not far behind him sat a wrinkled woman in a white headdress, beaming. Sarah Onyango -- Obama calls her "Granny" or "Mama Sarah" -- raised Obama's father during his boyhood in the Kenyan village of Kisumu. Until recently, she lived in a hut with no running water or electricity, and chickens darted in and out. Now, along with Obama's Kenyan half-sister, four of his five living half-brothers and other family members -- including his father's first wife -- she was a witness to history.

Obama's family narrative is something entirely new in U.S. history. No son of an immigrant has risen to be president since James Buchanan, whose father was born in Ireland in 1761. "This is a completely new phenomenon," said Gary Boyd Roberts, who has spent a lifetime studying the lineage of U.S. presidents and is senior research scholar emeritus with the New England Historic Genealogical Society. "We haven't ever had a president who was this connected to family overseas or to a culture that is this distant."

And no one has ever had overseas relatives attend his inauguration, according to Jim Bendat, author of "Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President."(Stanislaw Albert Raziwell, a Polish prince, did attend John F. Kennedy's inaugural, Roberts added, "but he was an in-law.")

The three Obama cousins at the celebration in Silver Spring came as part of a 20-member delegation from Kogelo, the Obama homeland. They were among the quietest in the boisterous, good-humored crowd. With few words, each tucked into heaping plates of ugali (a semihard cake of maize), mandazi sweet buns, roast potatoes, a whole fish, turkey, fried chicken, creamed spinach and grapes.

Wilson Obama ate the traditional way: with his hands.

Although he wore a blue baseball cap pulled low on his brow, the others soon teased that they could tell right away that he was an Obama. "It's the ears!" they shouted. Wilson Obama's ears, like his famous cousin's, stick out famously.

In Kisumu, Wilson Obama, 59, runs a small store of "consumables," selling wheat, flour, sugar, detergent and cooking oil. John Ogembu, 43, teaches biology and chemistry at a secondary school. They are both the president's second cousins.

Moses Obama, 35, is a lecturer on banking and finance at a local university. His mother was Barack Obama Sr.'s older sister, making him the president's first cousin.

They have met the president and eaten meals with him when he has visited Kenya. They've followed every twist of the campaign. Why they decided to come is simple: They could not let history as strange and wonderful as this pass them by.

"What has happened is not just for America," Ogembu said. "It is for the whole world."

Ogembu and his cousins didn't make it to the swearing-in in time. They desperately showed their passports with the Obama name, but Secret Service agents would not let them in the secure area near the president, said Grace Owuor, who was organizing the family's travel. They returned to their hotel and watched the event on television.

Nicholas Rajula, the spokesman for the 20-member delegation from Kogelo, said that village tradition required that they come and stand as "witnesses" and to "wish our son well." (Some watched on TV as well.) They claim him, Rajula laughed, even though villagers called him "mzungu," Swahili for white, when they first saw him.

Just after Obama was sworn in as a U.S. senator, Rajula, 49, journeyed to Washington on behalf of the ancestral homeland to bring him the traditional Luo symbols of leadership: a fly whisk, a three-legged stool and a shield. "We wanted to bring him a spear, too," Rajula said. "But we couldn't get it through security at the airport."

This time, they did not bring gifts. They can be given only once, Rajula explained. And, he said, Obama has already used their powers well.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company