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A village dreams of Barack Obama’s Kenyan homecoming

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Sarah Obama, the president's 94-year old step-grandmother, is the matriarch of the family. She is "Mama Sarah" to Kenyans, and "granny" to Obama/AFP

Sarah Obama, the president’s 94-year old step-grandmother, is the matriarch of the family. She is “Mama Sarah” to Kenyans, and “granny” to Obama/AFP

KOGELO, Kenya, Jul 21 – “It’s a business,” said Hosea Owuor, a 30-year old market trader on Kisumu’s Achieng Oneko Road. “Obama is a brand.”

Owuor hopes to cash in on President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya this month, ordering 400 t-shirts with a smiling portrait of the US leader, whose father was born in a rural village in the country’s west.

Normally Owuor sells secondhand clothes, knock-off designer gear and Chinese-made plastic sunglasses, but “Obama gave me another style of business,” he said.

Obama’s paternal line, reaching from a tiny African village to the White House in a single generation, is a source of immense pride for many Kenyans.

Barack Obama Senior grew up in the village of Kogelo before studying in the United States, where he met and married Obama’s mother Ann Dunham, the second of four women with whom he fathered children.

The couple soon separated and Barack Sr. became an absentee father. It wasn’t until after his father’s death in a car crash in Nairobi in 1982 that Obama visited Kenya for the first time in search of his roots. He bonded with his Kenyan relatives in a journey retold in the memoir ‘Dreams from my Father’.

Said Obama, the president’s 49-year old uncle – son of Obama’s late grandfather Hussein Onyango and his step-grandmother Sarah, who still lives in Kogelo – remembers his nephew’s earliest visit to Kenya in 1987.

“Barack used to come here, sneak into the village without people noticing. We were in Nairobi driving in the matatus (mini-buses), going to places like Mathare (a slum), jumping over sewers, and nobody noticed,” he said.

When Obama went into politics his anonymity evaporated, as did his Kenyan family’s privacy. “Kogelo was just a sleepy village, nobody knew about it,” said Said. “His coming to power has really put Kogelo on the world map.”

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