Kenya prepares to celebrate Obama inauguration


KISUMU, Kenya — The deafening music came first. Then came the truck with loudspeakers lashed to its roof and the slogan "Bringing Obama's inauguration to life" emblazoned on its side.

This town on Lake Victoria in far western Kenya is preparing to celebrate the swearing-in of President Barack Obama as eagerly as any Democratic stronghold.

At Jomo Kenyatta Park, a windswept two-acre dustbowl in the center of town, red and white bunting is being put up at the pavilion where thousands are expected to watch a live television broadcast of the inauguration 7,377 miles away, across Africa and the Atlantic Ocean, in Washington, D.C.

Distance is nothing because for people here Obama is one of their own: not just a black man but a half-Kenyan of the Luo tribe, and this is Luoland. Obama's father came from Kogelo, a nearby village and, although Obama himself was born and grew up abroad, Kenyans — and Luos in particular — claim him for themselves.

"We are happy [because] he is our son, he is a Luo," said Emily Mbogo-Okoth, a 38-year-old mother of three and restaurant owner.

Her tin-roofed, wood-walled restaurant is next to the bustling Municipal Market, where gnarled roots and dried herbal remedies jostle for space with bright red tomatoes and leafy greens.

"We are proud of him," she said. A nearby customer happily slurping sweet tea and munching on a deep-fried dough ball nodded in agreement.

Obama's victory has been enthusiastically embraced by the Luo people who have been marginalized in Kenyan politics. The Luos, numbering more than three million, are the third largest ethnic group in Kenya, making up about 12 percent of the population. Their homeland is here, in western Kenya near Lake Victoria. The Luos were largely excluded from political life for more than 20 years.

In December 2007, Luos protested that the election was rigged, robbing their candidate, Raila Odinga, of victory. Political violence erupted in which more than 1,000 people were killed. Peace was restored in a compromise in which Odinga became prime minister while Mwai Kibaki remained president.

With Raila Odinga in government and now Obama president of the United States, Luo spirits are surging here.

That sense of pride is palpable. It is in the smiles, in the eager chanting of his name and the keenness to talk, and in the street hawkers who are doing a brisk trade in Obama T-shirts and U.S. flags. The familiar lean, smiling face stares out from posters, calendars and clock faces in the market stalls that line the road.

My colleague, Gregory Warner, captured a Kenyan woman selling U.S. flags:

"We are very happy," said 25-year-old entrepreneur Geoffery Omondi with a grin as behind him a team of his workers turned sticks, glue and paper into makeshift US flags to be sold at the inauguration screening in the town park. "He is a black and we never thought we would see that!" 

At the nearby taxi park, where barely roadworthy minibus taxis (known as matatus) fill up with their human cargo before hurtling down Kenya's potholed roads, a crowd gathered outside the Komkom Music Store, a wooden shack perched over an open gutter.

They were enthralled by the latest music blasting from distorting speakers, a song about Obama performed by a Luo musician. His music video intercut shots of nubile dancers in skimpy animal skins with footage of Obama's election campaign. The stall-holder predicted good sales for the catchy tune (chorus: "Obama, Obama, Obama").

Enok Adoyo, 57, is a tribal elder, a custodian of Luo culture and a hairdresser. In his small barbershop cracked and chipped mirrors lean against a wall plastered with peeling posters of hairstyles. He wears his cap at a jaunty angle and speaks with a rumbling, gravely voice. His hands emphasize resolute words.

"Obama is incomparable to any other person in the world, a God-sent leader," Adoyo said. He attributes this to Obama's "Luo character" but while claiming Obama he, like many in Kisumu, was quick to add, "We're not asking for favors but we know that he can help. Being American, President Obama is not only going to help Luos but Kenyans and the whole world."

Adoyo hopes that Obama will be a role model not just for wayward Luo youth — who he said are led astray by Western decadence, drink and drugs — but for Kenya's own notoriously venal leaders. "I challenge them to copy Obama's character," he said.

But most important to Adoyo, as he watches the inauguration on Tuesday, will be the pride he will feel in his heart: "I will be overwhelmed with joy because a black man and a Kenyan is leading the world."