/ 29 March 2010

Kisumu’s favoured son

Kisumu's Favoured Son

On the edge of Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria, Irene Akinyi holds up a kanga with Barack Obama’s face resting between two African continents. She wants 500 Kenyan shillings (Ksh) for the garment. Not a bad deal, she says, considering she was selling them at double the price only a few months ago.

“Last year we sold 1 000 of these kangas,” says the 19-year-old stall-owner, holding up the traditional piece of clothing worn by local women around their waist. “This year, we’ve only sold three so far. T-shirts, kangas, badges — nobody wants them anymore.”

That the sales environment for Obama kitsch has quietened down is hardly surprising. But what is, is the sombre resignation that has come with it. Many locals expected Obama to do something for the area where his father was born and which he visited several times before running for the presidency.

Instead, in a very public reproof to Kenya’s corruption-riddled political system, he visited Ghana after his election — a country held up as a beacon of peace and stability on the continent.

“People have begun to realise that they can’t wait for Obama to help them,” says Dan Omombi, a taxi driver and former political activist. “They thought he would deliver the goodies, but he hasn’t. So people realise they’ll have to work hard themselves.”

But then, that’s no bad thing.

Where investment hasn’t come, American tourists and aid workers have, with a definite upsurge in visitors since his election, according to local travel agent Rosellyne Mokaya.

One of them, from Charlottesville, Virginia, is unloading sacks of grain from a 4×4 just off the Oginga Odinga Road, which cuts through the town. His name is Jonathan Martin and he is a Christian aid worker who has come “to share the gospel with the needy people of Kenya”.

“There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm leading up to the election as to what he was going to do for Kenyans. People were handing out badges and other Obama paraphernalia. There was one man praying in the street.

“But people now see that he’s just another politician. He isn’t necessarily going to put food on their tables. He didn’t exactly make Kenya the 51st state. But if he can put pressure on the government here over corruption, there will be results. A lot of money comes into Kenya and no one knows where it goes.”

And it is the very state of Kenya’s politics that accounts for much of Obama’s popularity in the country.

That’s because the enthusiasm which greeted his election was never just about “home town boy done good”.

Obama’s father came from the local Luo community. And in Kenya’s fractured tribal politics, that means a lot. In December 2007 the local MP, Raila Odinga, lost the presidential election in a controversial poll that resulted in some of the worst violence since independence from Britain in 1963. Luos have never held the presidency. And many felt they were cheated yet again by the Kikuyu tribe, who make up about 20% of the population and have twice held the presidency; the current president, Mwai Kibaki, is one of them.

Walking the streets of Kisumu you stumble on the frustration everywhere. Photos of Odinga, the prime minister in the current unity government, hang from store fronts, while on the main thoroughfare a crowd of about 100 people has gathered to hear a spokesperson for Odinga’s ODM party deliver a fiery speech.

“They manipulate the people of Nyanza in our own land,” he says, a bottle of Sprite in his left hand, the other gesticulating wildly over the crowd. “That lake [Lake Victoria] makes 80-billion Ksh a year from fish and where does it all go? To the Kikuyus. All the money goes to some clerk who then gives it to Kibaki.

“But God didn’t predict that Kikuyus would rule forever. This is the time of Kenya. This generation must make history.”

That Obama could become president of the US before a Luo became president of Kenya, therefore, means a lot to the people.

But then, it means a lot to all Kenyans. “He’s a very clever guy, very brave. On top of that, he is our son,” says Jared Okumu, nursing a beer in the Imperial Hotel in the town.

“He rose from nothing and he has never forgotten where he came from. That is to be respected. I mean he is respected worldwide.”