Kenya's 'First Family'

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The World

NAIROBI, Kenya — Said Obama, uncle of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, likes to tell the story of how he went down to the local supermarket in western Kenya a few weeks ago to pick up a new credit card. He found there was no need to give the clerk his name or phone number.

"He told me, 'Don't you know you are a celebrity in this city?' Before I told him my name, he had written it down," Said recalled. "We find we are known everywhere. You walk down the street, people point at you and discuss you. Our privacy has been taken away."

So it's been for many of Barack Obama's Kenyan relatives, a banquet hall's worth of half-siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and numerous people calling themselves any of the above. Speaking with them, you witness regular people struggling to find their place in a world forever changed by ties to a man few ever knew — or have even met — who has risen to the most powerful job in the world.

Obama's half-sister Auma — of all the Kenyan relatives she is closest to Barack — steadfastly projects an image of calm in the face of the whirlwind. Whether under guidance from Obama's campaign and transition staff or out of a sense of its own self-preservation, the family has mostly closed itself off to the media. Auma and Said handle the media queries (about 20 a day, according to Said). Journalists can no longer just show up in western Kenya and say hello to his step-grandmother, "Granny" Sarah Onyango Obama, 87.

"We live our lives here, what you see is what you get, and we're really basically genuine people," Auma Obama said in an interview, keeping her mirror sunglasses on throughout.

"We're really very normal. So far, we have been able to not let it overwhelm us,” she said. “It's just knowing that you've got to continue leading your own life and not try to change the way you live and try to be something that you're not. That's how I live my life and it's working."

That patience was tested during the election itself, when hundreds of reporters descended upon the Obama family's hometown of Kogelo in western Kenya. One British newspaperman brought a goat to the family's election-day feast — sufficient, apparently, to gain him entry. An American correspondent wrote an account of helping Obama's half-brother, Malik, slaughter a bull.

To their surprise, Obama's Kenyan family says that attention is getting even more intense with the approach of the inauguration on January 20. Granny Sarah, 87, traveled with the delegation from the Kenyan government along with Auma, Said and Malik. Granny Sarah, 87, who has been the face of the Kenyan family in the years since Barack Obama shot to prominence after delivering a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Asked after the election whether she would attend, Granny Sarah quipped, "Do you really think I'm going to be left behind?" She promised to treat Obama to chapati, a popular flat bread, when she's there. Recently she said that being "First Grandma" is a full-time job. 

Kenyan newspapers and television stations have not shared the international media’s infinite interest in every familial detail of the Kenyan Obamas. With the inauguration approaching, it has focused on the new round of national reflection that Obama's election has inspired in many of Kenya's 44 million people.

It is difficult to overstate the pride that people here feel for Obama and the stories of Kenyans' affection for him are legion. President Mwai Kibaki declared a public holiday to commemorate his election victory and the celebrations that broke out after the results were a mix of rapture and stunned disbelief.

Obama is, by Kenyans' accounting, one of them even though he has only visited the country a couple of times. Many hope that Obama will bring more attention to Africa's problems and perhaps bring more tourists to Kenya. Some have spoken of direct benefits.

"The word cousin does not exist in our vocabulary — somebody is either your brother or your sister," said playwright George Orido, whose tribute to the president-elect, "Obama: The Musical," has been playing in Kenya since before the election. "So, Obama is our brother or son. In other words, our own is leading the world. How can we not appreciate that?"

The Obama family insists there is nothing awe-inspiring or strange in the fact that Barack Obama's grandfather was a village elder, his father began life herding goats and his step-grandmother lives in a rural home that only recently got hooked up to the national power grid.

At home, they are right. By the standards of Kenya, where 40 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, the Obamas are average, or better than average. Barack Obama's father, a prominent government economist who succumbed to ethnic ostracism and alcohol, left behind seven children from three wives when he died in a car crash at 46.

Half-brother Said has a job at a factory and Granny Sarah tends a small farm in western Kenya. Half-brother George lives in Nairobi’s Huruma slum but does not, as the Italian edition of Vanity Fair recently claimed, live on only 12 dollars a year. He insists he is getting by.

But Kenyans themselves often do not agree with the family's assessment. They put enormous significance in the fact that Americans managed to elect a man of Kenyan blood with little trouble, while their own presidential election in December 2007 was tortuous. Years of incitement by senior politicians, coupled with allegations of rigging, triggered ethnic violence that killed 1,200 people and drove some 300,000 from their homes.

"We were fighting each other simply because we believed certain people from certain communities cannot be leaders, and here you are, America is giving a good example, a minority race being elected president," said playwright Orido. "It gives us inspiration that it's also possible here. That's why the slogan 'Yes we can' resonates not only with Americans but also with Kenyans."

Nicholas Rajulah is a businessman in western Kenya who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Kenya's parliament. He calls Obama a cousin, though not by blood. Like some Kenyans, he hopes that an Obama presidency will bring some economic benefit to Kenya — through tourism, or a greater awareness of African issues.

"I must admit that as a community we are happy," Rajulah said. "Even if we have not gotten anything directly from him, we have a tradition or belief that he who brings many strangers or visitors to our home, brings blessings."