Obamatown, Kenya

Updated on
The World

KISUMU, Kenya — Barack Obama and his party may be hitting some speed bumps in domestic popularity but there’s one place where the U.S. president’s appeal looks timeless.

Nyanza province in Kenya, where Obama’s father was from, is the epicenter of the Obamamania that continues to delight Africa. Kisumu, the region’s capital, went wild when Obama won his way to the White House. A year later, Obama’s visage looms large in the town. He’s a source of inspiration, a brand, a saintly figure — maybe even a state of mind.

(Read about Kenya's national pride in Obama's election.)

In the open-air market of this small city on the shores of Lake Victoria, fabric vendor Jacqueline Achiem reached to bring down a yellow kanga cloth she had displayed prominently in her stall. On the bolt, which might be worn as a wrap by a woman, was a giant headshot of Obama between twin African continents.

“Of course it’s popular, we only have one left!” Achiem quipped with a laugh.

Annabelle Auma, a younger assistant, chimed in. “We call him our son,” she said.

In fact, all of Kenya — not just Kisumu — lays claim to Obama as a native son, even though the 44th president was not born here, barely knew his father and didn’t visit Kenya until adulthood.

Obama is so important to Kenya that the government recently unveiled a plan to erect a monument to him at his father’s village of Nyang’oma Kogelo near Kisumu. Local media initially reported that the project, a center designed to promote cross-cultural dialogue, would cost more than $1 million, though the ministry responsible has since said the real figure will be much lower.

It doesn’t take a cynic to think that money invested in an Obama-themed tourist trap might be a pretty shrewd business venture, in addition to a place where all can learn to get along. Obama has a brand appeal here that rivals the big English soccer clubs. Copyright-infringing Obama paraphernalia dots the Kisumu market as much as Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United knock-offs do. This is common throughout East Africa, but Kisumu appears to be the capital of executive kitsch.

“As a saleswoman, when I see something written with ‘Obama,’ I have to get it,” said Monica Aoko, a hawker of various wares who said she was from Obama’s father’s village. She displayed a pair of flip-flops bearing Obama’s face and name. “People will buy it.”

Of course, it’s not only commercial appeal that keeps some young women in Kisumu fitted in red Obama T-shirts from the Adercronbie [sic] label. Especially here, love for Obama is as much about local issues as it is about the things the president symbolizes for many Americans, like racial harmony.

Obama’s father was a Luo, a major Kenyan tribe that is the majority in Nyanza province. Many Luo feel they have been neglected by the central government since independence. Other groups, especially the Kikuyu, have retained much of the country’s wealth and power. These were some of the grievances that boiled over in early 2008, when parts of Kisumu burned after contested presidential elections that pitted Raila Odinga, a Luo, against incumbent Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu.

Thus the calendar hanging in a barbershop near the center of town. “Two great men,” it read beneath side-by-side images of Odinga and Obama.

“There is tribalism in Kenya — that’s why Luos like him,” said Omar Karim, a young man passing through Kisumu’s minibus stand. Other Obama supporters in town weren’t sure which of the president’s policies they found appealing, but were convinced that his Nyanza roots were good enough.

“He’s my cousin, so when I heard he went to America, I was very happy,” Aoko said, perhaps describing her relationship to Obama liberally. “If one of our elders is somewhere, he can help us.”

Even here, though, there is a quality to Obama’s appeal that seems to transcend ethnic solidarity — something like what American voters saw during his campaign, a sense that he might be able to bring people together.

“We need Obama in Kenya, not the United States,” Achiem said forcefully.

The cloth-seller grinned. She and the rest of Kisumu will have to wait awhile. The president's approval ratings may have slid a bit, but it doesn't look like Obama will be moving to Kenya anytime soon.

(Read an overview of how the world views Obama one year later.)

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