Obama's ancestral village hopes for tourism boost as the former president plans visit

KEN151218TO004KOGELO, Kenya – When President Barack Obama left office in January 2017, some voters and foreign allies said they would miss him.
But none were so openly heartbroken as residents of this small village in Kenya from where Obama's ancestors hail – the president's familial ties brought boom times to Kogelo, which abruptly ended with his term.

Now, on June 16, Obama makes his first visit to this village since before he took office. And locals are hoping for revival – in tourism and donor largesse – along with welcoming their native son.

“We are happy he (Obama) is coming, and this time to the village,” said Amos Onyango, 44, a resident who owns a grocery shop. “When Obama left office we were left like orphans. All white people left the village and we have never received visitors or any help like it used to be. We hope his visit will bring change once more.”

Obama's late father, Barak Hussein Obama, was born in Kogelo and the former president will visit his relatives on this trip –-- including his step-grandmother, Mama Sarah Obama, 96 and half-brother Malik. He will then travel to South Africa where he will deliver the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg, according to the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Obama Foundation.

Obama has been to Africa multiple times, and to Kenya once as president, in 2015, but he disappointed villagers by not including them on his itinerary on that trip.

But he promised to return: “I will be back to Kenya next time. I would also come with (my daughters) Malia and Sasha. My family loves Kenya,” said Obama during his visit in the country in 2015.

Meanwhile, the town is busy getting ready for the visit: Work has been non-stop for weeks on garden beds, gutters and the impressive potholes that keep drivers alert. At his ancestral home, workers have been painting and renovating the old building that remains before Obama’s visit.

Residents said a team from the US embassy visited the village, including Senator Barrack Obama primary and secondary School, Mama Sarah Obama's home and Sauti Kuu Foundation associated with the President's elder sister Auma Obama.
Residents said they consider him one of them.

"We love him as our son,” said Japhet Omollo, 67, an elder of the village.

Still, they hope the trip helps improve things, too.

During the Obama presidency, the once sleepy village received both local and global recognition, bringing funding for development never before witnessed in Kenya in the past five decades: Roads, schools, hotels appeared as well as tourists.

Now financial aid to Obama-related social welfare institutions in Kenya – the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation, the Barack H. Obama Foundation and the Barack Obama Secondary School – has dried up.

“When he comes we need him to help the community," said Omollo. "We have no hospital and water. Our children need to go to school and we have no money.”

Still, many are sure of a turnaround.

“We want to welcome Obama home. His visit means a lot to us,” said Nicholas Rajula, a cousin of the president who owns a resort here. “Our businesses will now pick up and residents will get support that will enable them to take their children to school.”

Obama’s step-grandmother said she will only believe it after Obama actually appears.

“I am not sure he will visit the village,” said Mama Sarah Obama. “But I will be very happy if he comes.”

Photo: This luxurious building in Kogelo village has been named ‘White House’; to mean the official residence and principal workplace of the President of the United States. The building is owned by Obama’s family.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network (12/18/15)

Story/photo published date: 06/14/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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