Kenyans celebrate one of their own

Tue, Oct 28, 2008, 00:00

VIEW FROM AFAR . . . KISUMU, KENYA:ONE FACE is more obvious than any other in the Kenyan city of Kisumu, in the far west of the country on the shores of Lake Victoria, writes Rob Crilly

The same face beams down from minibus taxis, T-shirts and even clocks.

"Psssst, mzungu," says a hawker using the Swahili word for a white man. "You want Barack Obama?" Stalls in the city's sprawling market are crammed with wonky photocopied portraits offered for sale in cheap, Chinese-made frames alongside Kenya's prime minister and president. Clothes shops have run out of T-shirts printed up for the US elections.

For the past four years Kenyans have been enthralled by the meteoric rise of a politician born to one of their own.

Ever since he was propelled into the limelight at the 2004 Democratic Convention they have followed every up and up of his career as the embodiment of the American dream.

His homecoming two years ago brought hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets of Kisumu, about an hour from his family home, as everyone tried to join in his success.

Even then no one can have believed he would come this close to the White House.

Now the country is building towards Tuesday's election with wall-to-wall coverage on television and in the newspapers.

"On the day we will be having a celebration," says Kogode, one of the men gathered beneath a lilac-blossomed Jacaranda in Kisumu city centre. "We will be slaughtering a goat, having some beer and holding an event. Of that there is no doubt."

Kogode is a member of the Western Region Political Watchtower, a grand name for a street corner of simple stalls, shoeshine boys and hawkers, where political junkies while away the hours discussing the day's big news.

Normally that would be the ins and outs of Kenya's political wrangling, the fall-out from post-election violence and the latest rumours of corruption in parliament.

But Obama has been the only topic of conversation for weeks.

"Everyone is talking about Obama," says Onyango Tosha, another regular at the Watchtower. "Kenyan politics is small. We have forgotten about it for now."

Obama's father grew up close to Kisumu, herding goats and walking barefoot to school before leaving for America. His son may have been born in the US, but to Kenyans Barack Obama is now a national hero.

That is not all that makes him popular here. In a country where politics is driven by tribalism, patronage and corruption, he represents a different way of doing business, according to the Watchtower's chairman, Tom Owako. "In Africa there are so many dictators. Obama will bring democracy everywhere and to Africa," he says.

"So he is popular not because of his tribe but because of his policies."

All of Kenya is following his path to the White House. But nowhere is the excitement more hysterical than in Kisumu, home to Obama's tribemates - the Luos.

The local airport is being renovated, leading to jokes that it is being designed to accommodate Air Force One.

An enterprising tour operator is offering Obama safaris, driving visitors up to the gates of the simple farmstead where his father grew up and where his step-grandmother still lives.

And then there are the stalls.

Charles Omondi's rickety wooden bench is filled with "success cards". On the outside they carry the image of the Democrat senator for Illinois and the Stars and Stripes; inside they wish students "all the best in your forthcoming exams".

"The idea is that everyone wants to be like him," says Omondi, "and his example will help them pass. "We were also selling calendars but ran out yesterday."

It is the same story across town, where Donna Otieno is selling T-shirts at the Our Joint Boutique.

She bought a test batch of five and sold them in two days, prompting her to fill her rails with Obama T-shirts bearing the legend "Pride of Kenya".

"Here is the origin of Obama," she says in her cluttered shop, which also sells nail polish and perfume. "He's our son and we are very proud.

"We can't be with him there but we can support him from here." If Kenya's votes counted, he would have won by now.