Monday, February 14, 2011

Grandmother of the Free World

We have the dubious honor of living in the least visited part of one of the most visited countries in Africa.  Western Kenya has none of the big game of Kenyan savannas, none of the picturesque  beaches of the coast and no Leakey ever made a famous archaeological discovery here.  Personally, I think this area is breathtakingly beautiful, with rolling green hills, patchwork shambas and easy proximity to lake Victoria;  but most visitors pass it over in favor of the more impressive game parks and luxury safari tents.    
If you do get out to Western Kenya, one of the few things guide books will recommend you do (other than feeling proud of yourself for being in a non-touristy area of a very touristy country) is go visit President Obama’s ancestral homeland in Siaya province.  Visiting Obama's grandmother seems at least a blog-worthy, if a bit weird, thing to do, so that's what we set out to do this weekend.
In keeping with a culture that believes it an honor to receive visitors and welcomes them with great hospitality, mama Obama (his paternal grandmother) sees a study stream of about 200 visitors per week.  
It’s customary to bring a gift of food or even a small goat, but it’s not required.  A cynic might say she’s “cashing in” on her long lost grandson’s fame.  But seeing as she’s 88 years old and makes time to welcome and sit with visitors and answer the same inane questions 6 days out of a week, something like duty seems more apt than profit.   We were curious enough to see for ourselves.
Siaya is actually a very poor and dry district relative to its neighbors and the road we drove was craggily and pot-holed, a visceral reminder of the yawning gap between Obama’s gilded life and his ancestral roots.   We knew we were getting close when we started to see schools and various welfare projects named for (and some supported by) President Obama.


The whole visit to nya nya Obama is rather well organized, with regular hours (including lunch breaks), a sign-in book, and an officious looking guard who steadfastly imposes the “no videos” rule.  And what tourist attraction would be complete without a small stand of curios for sale? 

I actually thought the visit would have something of a distasteful “human zoo” feel, like those horrible organized treks you find in developing countries to local Potemkin villages in which you can watch “natives” working at their handicrafts for your photographic enjoyment.  I thought we would go gawk at the grandmother of the free world, take a few pictures for the scrapbook and go away feeling a bit phony but with a story for the folks back home.
But it actually wasn’t that bad.  It was unexpectedly thrilling to be that close to Mama Sarah and her two children (Obama’s aunt and uncle) who serve as interpreters and cultural ambassadors. Her son, the naturally intelligent and charismatic character from Dreams of My Father, is buried only yards away from where we sat in the yard. 
Mama Obama was surprisingly energetic for her 88 years and more than gracious. It really felt like a visit to pay our respects and not at all like we were gawking.  (Though I have no idea how it felt to her.)  She answered our pesky questions and actually insisted we take pictures.
Caleb, oblivious to her fame, would rather chase around chickens than pose for a picture

At the end of the day, she’s a strong Luo woman who worked hard to see that all her 9 children (Barak Obama Sr. and 2 others were step children) got a decent education.  One of those children happened to win a scholarship to an island of the “land of opportunity,” and happened to meet a woman with whom he had a child, who happened to grow up to be President of the most powerful country on earth.  It’s a crazy and randomly interconnected world we live in.

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