Last Tuesday Siaya county was awash with miniature flags featuring Barack Hussein Obama as residents conversed in animated tones in groups and along the dusty roads of the county in anticipation of the visit to Nyang’oma village by their famous son, the former president of the US. The media had labelled the visit low key, and probably it was.
But even as the residents were animated and excited, it seemed every effort was made to keep them off from the village and the larger area where the reception was unfolding. To start with, security was tight—so tight that most villagers gave up any effort to try to get close. Then the list of guests excluded the local celebrities. That other famous son of Siaya—Raila Odinga—was not going to be there! But it did not matter, Siaya, the county that styles itself as the home of heroes, was going to have two of her sons, Obama and Raila grace Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday anniversary in the far away land of South Africa.
But even the remaining sons and daughters who were present did not play any prominent role in the visit. The only headline that Governor Cornel Rasanga grabbed was his brush with security details. The governor from the neighbouring county of Kisumu, Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, famous on his own right—Nyanza has a soft spot for professors and Nyong’o is not only one of them but is the father of a famous girl that Nyanza has embraced—remained sighted through out the ceremony.
Even in the choice of entertainment, the land that has produced some of region’s greatest musicians could not feature a local performer. That songbird from the lakeside, Susan Owiyo, who boasts international fame, did not show up to belt out something in a language residents could identify with. Instead, Yvonne Chakachaka of South Africa filled in with a performance in English. This is the home of Amolo Kongo the Kamba nane specialist who placed Nyatiti in the global map so much so that it attracted Eriko Mukoyoma, the Japanese lass locally baptised Anyango, to intern in Alego ending up as probably the first female ever to play Nyatiti. There is no shortage of Nyatiti singers who have composed songs in praise of Obama.
Instead, the ceremony featured avant guarde art that while consummate touched the mind rather than the heart of residents that saw it on television. It remained a spectacle of intellectual curiosity rather than heartfelt engagement.
Most of those who lined up the roads to welcome Obama understood just how important their son was and the necessity for the tight security. For as Obama intoned in his brief address, he was the first Kenyan-American president and it is understandable that people with evil eyes would not wish well a man of such stature. But still it would have helped for Obama to identify with the village more than he did, at least to reach out to their hearts and embrace the villagers in return.
Prof Gilbert Ogutu summed it. Obama “is our son. His blood is our blood”. It does not matter that Obama is a citizen of the world as the former president himself acknowledged. But Ogutu expresses the thoughts of many: “We want him to come and sit by our fire to chat. We want him to eat his grandmother’s fish stew. We want his daughters to bathe in our rivers. We want him to build a homestead here. But that won’t happen; we have to be realistic, too.”
Kogelo’s passion was poured out for Obama but he may not understand how much they love him. He certainly does not, so far, return that love. As some residents expressed, all they wanted was to see the son from their village whose father’s and grandfather’s remains are interred in their midst.
Any young villager would proudly recite for you Obama’s family tree. It would have sufficed for him to raise his towering voice, raise his frame above his vehicle and wave at them, and say just one word: amosou. But, instead, Obama talked about being among his family and those who claim to be his family. That was a subtle dig—for every Luo is effectively a relative of other Luos even if they do not know at that moment the nature of the relationship. That later is left for time to reveal. President Obama still owes Kogelo a visit.
Writer is Dean, School of Communications, Language & Performing Arts at Daystar University