Obama’s struggling ancestral Kenya village misses him — and cashing in on his presidency

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Sunday September 3, 2017

A vendor selling flags, caps and T-shirts, and wearing a shirt showing President Barack Obama with words in Luo reading “Father has reached home”, sells his wares at an event attended by Sarah Obama, the step-grandmother of the former president, in her hometown of Kogelo, Kenya, on July 18, 2015.


Barack Obama’s ancestral village here laments his exit from the White House — because that also caused an exit of tourists and financing for a community now wringing its hands over the future.

Elders recently gathered at the local chief’s camp to discuss how to handle the rapid drop-off in Obama-spurred visitors, donations and other benefits the 44th president of the United States brought to the place where his father was born.

“We didn’t imagine life will be this bad without Obama,” said Willys Otieno, 45, a village. “The white people have left the village with their money. There are no more tourists coming here, and we (still) have to pay bills for everything.”
Students have dropped out of local private schools because they’ve lost scholarships funded by the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation, the Barack H. Obama Foundation and the Barack Obama Secondary School and Primary School. A few donor-funded health clinics in the region have shut down because of a lack of funding.

“Life changed early this year when Obama retired,” said Grace Anyango, 16, a student who has depended on a scholarship to attend the Obama Secondary School. “I have been out of school for lack of fees. My friends have also dropped out.”

The former president’s office had no comment about Kogelo’s plight.

Obama did not directly fund the charities. But his family here used his name and high office to raise money and assist the poor in this village of 3,000 residents, 250 miles east of the capital, Nairobi.
Willys Otieno of Kogelo, Kenya, said his daughter lost a scholarship immediately after President Barack Obama left the White House. (Photo: Tonny Onyulo)


During Obama’s candidacy and eight years in office, a steady stream of journalists, tourists and others flocked to sleepy Kogelo to discover the birthplace of Barack Obama Sr., who died in 1982, and to meet the president’s step-grandmother, Mama Sarah. The village provided a backdrop to scenes in Obama’s best-selling 1995 autobiography Dreams from My Father.


Sarah Obama, step-grandmother to then-President Barack Obama, reacts with members of her family on Nov 7, 2012, in Kogelo, Kenya, after announcements of Obama’s re-election victory. (Photo: Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images)


The Kenyan government paved roads, extended electricity and water lines and built a police station in the village in response to all the attention.

Donors also rushed to help the village build an educational and health system. Many residents came to depend on charities driven by buzz around Obama’s presidency. Some residents even received grants from well-wishers to build new homes.

Now Obama’s step-grandmother regularly decries the pathetic state of the Barack Obama schools since her grandson left office, blaming lack of maintenance. “We need to support them, as they will act as reservoirs for local brains,” she said.

Nicholas Rajula, Obama’s cousin and a family spokesman who owns a resort in the village, agreed that his famous relative’s departure from the White House has really affected his family and village.

“Life is completely different here since Obama left office,” Rajula said. “It has really affected my business, because there are no international guests coming to the village.”
Some still see an opportunity for the village, because the ex-president’s half-brother, Malik Obama, was a vocal booster of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, Rajula said.

“We are expecting President Trump to reward Malik for his overwhelming support he accorded him,” he said, amid cheers from nearby villagers. “When he (Trump) gives Malik a good job, then the village will still benefit.”

That seems doubtful. The village might receive more help from Auma Obama, the former president’s half-sister, who has helped raise funds for constructing a university on a 50-acre plot of land in the village.

According to Rajula, the foundation is seeking to build a world-class university named after Obama, plus an early childhood development center to assist widows in Kogelo.

Mama Sarah has asked Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to visit Kogelo and lay a foundation stone for what is tentatively being called Barack Obama University College. “The university will serve all Kenyans regardless of their political, social and tribal inclinations,” she said.

Even if it gets built, Otieno doesn’t believe the university will keep the village from sliding back into the rampant poverty that prevailed before Obama was president.

“We don’t need structures. We need free health care and our children to go to school,” he said. “We want to see white people coming here like it used to be when our son was president.”

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