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Kenyans anxiously eye US vote

06 November 2012, 15:02

Nairobi - Paved roads, electricity, running water: Barack Obama’s ancestral home has seen much change in the past four years, and residents are preparing for a sleepless night ahead as they watch the polls.

On the eve of the US presidential elections, reporters have descended on this small village in western Kenya, nestled in the hills about 60 kilometres (40 miles) from the glittering blue waters of Lake Victoria.

Draped over the road that connects the village to Kisumu, the main town of the region, a banner offers tickets for an all-night screening of the election.

“Watch the American presidential election 2012 on big screen” the advert reads, and, despite even the cheapest ticket costing some 12 dollars – about a week’s wages for a casual labourer – that has not dampened enthusiasm.

“I’m going to watch the election all night long… it’s expensive but I’ll manage,” said Mary Manyala Ohito, a health worker.

In the courtyard of the nearby primary school – renamed after Obama following a visit in 2006 when he was a senator – a giant screen will also be set up, with free access for the local residents.

Sarah Obama – 90 this year, and the third wife of the paternal grandfather of Barack Obama – still lives in Kogelo. While the president shares no blood with “Mama Sarah”, he has said he regards her as his grandmother.

In the final hours ahead of the result, Mama Sara remains cloistered in her home, guarded by round-the-clock police.

“We’ll be staying together with the family watching it together until the result is announced,” said Said Hussein Obama, an uncle of the president. “We expect he’s going to win.”

Four years ago at the last elections, Kogelo was a different village: few places for a cold drink in the shops, while televisions were powered by thumping generators.

Today, while Internet is still slow, hotels are developing, some providing access to cable television channels.

“There has been lots of changes here,” said Dorothy Babu, Kogelo Village Resort manager, one the main hotels. “Now we have water, electricity, and a police station, and security is much better.”

Before, “Kogelo had been a sleeping village”, said Ohito, noting both the recent arrival of motorcycle taxis, as well as improvements in health care as changes.

But the hoped for influx of tourists after Obama’s 2008 election win seems to be far away, with the village falling far below Kenya’s other tourist attractions of national parks or seaside resorts on the Indian Ocean.

Here, the main attraction, “Mama Sarah”, is rarely seen, while elsewhere in the village “there is not much to see,” admits Babu, who hopes an animal reserve could be created nearby.

“A lot more needs to be done,” admitted Said Hussein Obama, suggesting the village should be included on tours of the region.
“People want to see the origin of the president… and it is up to the government to market this place.”

But Obama certainly has raised the profile of the village.

“Since he had been elected, he has put Kogelo on the world map,” he said. “I don’t think it (progress) would have been possible if Barack had not been elected.”

Some are a little disappointed not to have seen the president since his election, with Ohito wistfully saying she hopes “he will come.”

During his four years in office, Obama has not visited Kenya.

“Maybe if he’s re-elected he will tour Africa,”‘ his uncle adds. “I don’t say he is going to come to Kogelo, but Kenya will be one of those countries he’s going to visit.”



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