Election Night with the Obamas

November 10, 2008

Election night in Kogelo

I was one of the few journalists to get an invite to spend election night with the Obama family in their Kogelo home. Put something together for one of the Sundays but it wasn’t used so I thought I’d stick it here…
THE piercing shriek of a cheap mobile phone broke through the quiet of the simple African village. The only other sounds were the thrumming of a distant generator and the crackle of cooking fires.
Abongo Malik Obama put the phone to his ear before his face broke into smiles.
“Yes my brother. We are well,” he said, in his booming Kenya voice
Thousands of miles and a world away, Barack Obama had taken time out from the razzmatazz of the most important night of his life to snatch a few words with his Kenyan family.
In Chicago his supporters were queuing at a park where the Obama campaign had booked its victory rally. His advisers were still polishing his speech as the world waited for the polls to close.
But for 10 minutes all Barack wanted to do was chat with his brother and catch up on village news.
“We talked about this and that, about the death of his grandmother in Hawaii,” said Malik, as he prefers to be known, “and we were talking about all the craziness here in Kogelo about the relatives and friends and everyone who had come to visit.
“Then we talked about the campaign. He said it had been fun but now he was just trying to get through the last leg.”
The two men have been close ever since Barack Obama first visited Kenya to learn about his roots in his 20s.
They share the same father, Barack Obama senior, who grew up herding goats in the family homestead in the far west of Kenya.
He left to study in the US after Abongo was born to his first wife, Kezia, who now lives in Berkshire.
In America he met and fell in love with a fellow student, Ann Dunham, Barack Obama’s mother, before walking out on them and eventually returning to Africa.
Now Malik is leading the life Barack would have lived if he had been born in Kenya.
His home is a tin-roofed shack surrounded by mango trees.
In Kogelo, where his 86-year-old grandmother still lives, water is drawn by bucket from a well.
Chickens scratch at the red-rust soil.
Children run barefoot through maize fields to school.
And mains electricity is still five miles away even in the year 2008.
Life here depends on the rains much as it has for centuries.
As the first born to the first born, Abongo heads the extended Obama family.
While his younger half-brother was raising millions of dollars in internet and corporate donations, Abongo was having to scrape together enough cash to entertain more than 100 aunts, uncles, cousins, step-brothers and sisters and assorted friends, local dignitaries and wellwishers who made their way down the rutted, bumpy track to the family home.
Entertaining Kenyan-style means meat – and plenty of it.
“We are Africans. This is what we do. We kill an animal and invite all our friends to visit,” said Malik, 50.
As well as buying a new TV for his guests, he had laid out for four bulls and a dozen or so goats so that bellies would be full each evening.
At the neighbouring school – renamed Senator Barack Obama Kogelo School four years ago – 16 chickens were awaiting their role in the victory feast.
“This is all very expensive,” said Malik, as he plugged the new portable television into a generator. “Everyone expects to be looked after and as the eldest son of the eldest son it is up to me to look after them.
“I’m not making any money out of this.
“But it’s such a special, historic occasion that we have to do it.”
By Tuesday evening, the scattering of huts – some made from mud bricks, others more substantial – was abuzz with excitement.
As night fell, the small clearing turned dark, lit by little more than the glow of stars.
Relatives clustered around two televisions showing CNN’s coverage of election night.
Every appearance of their famous cousin, son or brother brought a huge cheer.
For many, it would have been the first time they had watched television.
As the tropical African day turned to night, and the temperature dropped, people clustered around fires or wrapped themselves in blankets.
A few old men missing teeth gulped the local moonshine, a potent brew made from maize.
Gradually the glow from the TV screen turned blue, as Obama claimed more and more states, keeping out the Republican red.
Eyes drooped and one or two of the older relatives curled up inside the shacks to catch some sleep.
Then, at about seven o’clock in the morning, the party started.
“Barack Obama Junior is president of the world,” screamed one old lady emerging from a gloomy doorway.
It was the signal for an African celebration.
Women whooped with joy while men cheered.
In Chicago laser beams rippled across the sky at Obama’s victory rally.
In Kogelo, his relatives were joining in a tribal dance, feet stomping on the bare earth to cries of: “Obama is coming, clear the way.”
Biosa Obama, the president-elect’s sister in law, said no-one had ever doubted the win.
“We didn’t sleep all night. Now we are just going to party. Barack will be a great president,” she said, her feet tapping out a rhythm as people danced all around her.
Word soon spread. Hundreds of people trooped in from neighbouring villages carrying branches in a show of celebration.
It was left to Malik to reflect on the occasion.
“I feel that this is a great, great, great moment. It means a new era, a new era of thinking about the direction of the world,” he said, his eyes filling with tears and his voice breaking.
If an Obama presidency marks a new dawn for America, it also marks a bright new dawn for the little village of Kogelo where generations of Obamas have herded goats and picked bananas.
Surveyors arrived from the local electricity company even before the celebrations had ended.
It may have taken a president in the family, but the Kenyan Obamas are about to get their own power.