Obamania at its height in Kenya (Letter from Nairobi)

January 15th, 2009 - 11:00 am ICT by IANS  

Barack ObamaNairobi, Jan 15 (IANS) Barack Obama’s election as US president has made him an idol in his father’s homeland Kenya, with his pictures gracing calendars, vehicles and the walls of many homes. The country is even holding a five-day cultural extravaganza to celebrate the inauguration of America’s first black head of state.”Obama is very popular everywhere in Kenya,” said Karam Singh, a Kenyan Indian. “I went for dinner to one Indian friend and he had portraits of Obama alongside pictures of Hindu gods.”

“In traffic jams, vendors run up to cars selling his autobiography and pictures to hang at home. Vehicles have his photos painted on them,” Singh told IANS.

No wonder the inauguration celebrations for Obama start in Kenya much earlier than in the US. The Jan 16-20 cultural event in his ancestral village Kogelo in western Kenya will include traditional African music, dance, poems, art exhibitions, folk stories and feasts.

Kenya’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage is assisting to organise this major event, which will be attended by many elders from his tribe and experts on African culture.

“The most important guest at Obama’s inauguration is from Kenya,” headlined an American newspaper reporting on Sarah Obama, Barack’s Kenyan grandmother.

The US embassy in Nairobi has granted visas to eight members of the Kogelo community to attend Obama’s inauguration on Jan 20 in Washington, DC. The group includes five immediate family members of Obama.

On the historic day when the first African American takes the oath of office to lead the most powerful nation of the world, Kenyans will be singing to hail him.

The trail blazing Boys Choir of Kenya, a group of 26 young men, will perform for Obama and his guests in Washington during the inauguration. They will present the song “America the Beautiful”, a US national song, and “Jambo Bwana”, a popular Kenyan ditty that means “Hello, Boss”.

Kenya declared a national holiday when Obama won. The next national holiday will be when he visits Kenya, which will be an event in itself.

The African country is already reaping a bonanza for its tourism sector, which had taken a big hit following the ethnic violence in January 2008 soon after the elections in December 2007.

Now no Kenyan safari is complete without a visit to Kogelo village in Nyanza Province of western Kenya, which was not very popular on the tourist circuit until Obama won the US elections.

Many tour companies start their safaris from his village and then escort the tourists to the national parks. The safari packages, costing between $2,000 and $3,500, are promoted as “Obama Kenya Roots and Heritage”, “Presidential Heritage safari”, “Roots of Obama” and “Discover Obama’s Kenyan Roots”.

A tour operator cautions tourists: “There will be no entry into the private residence of Obama’s grandmother nor will there be any interviews or contact with any of the Obama family members.”

The road to Kogelo has been upgraded, a police post has been established, the airport in nearby Kisumu town is being expanded and a museum telling the story of the Obama heritage is under construction and set to open later this year.

Kenyan tour operators, including many Kenyan Indians who own safari companies, are travelling to the US to promote Obama Safaris and bookings have increased since November 2008.

Many Kenyan companies and politicians are also cashing in on Obama’s victory. A company producing the vastly popular beer called Senator launched a new beer named President when Obama won.

East Africa’s leading newspaper, Daily Nation, published a calendar entitled “The Obama Year”, which was sold out quickly on that day. Obama posters and T-shirts are top sellers. Kenyan politicians published advertisements congratulating Obama on his victory to promote themselves.

“I came across one coach on Mombasa Road with Obama’s portrait painted on the back. It was a race to get a good vantage point from my car seat to take a picture of the moving coach. I drove the driver crazy, asking him to get as close as possible on this dangerous stretch of the road,” said Singh.

“After several wasted shots, I got my exclusive at the cost of being cursed by the driver and passengers. They could not fathom the reason why someone would want to take a photo of the back of the bus bearing Obama’s photo.

“To me, this photo embodied aspirations of ordinary Kenyans who strive for greater achievements in terms of monetary gains, power, high powered connections and personal embellishments,” he added.

(Kul Bhushan can be contacted at kb@kulbhushan.net)

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