(International Herald Tribune) KOGELO, Kenya: A barefoot old woman in a ripped dress is sitting on a log in front of her tin-roof bungalow in this remote village in western Kenya, jovially greeting visitors.
Mama Sarah, as she is known around here, lives without electricity or running water. She is illiterate and doesn’t know when she was born. Yet she may have a seat of honor at the next presidential inauguration in Washington – depending on what happens to her step-grandson, Barack Obama.
Mama Sarah cannot communicate with Obama, who calls her his grandmother, because she speaks only her Luo tribal language and a little Swahili. Obama’s Luo is pretty much limited to “musawa,” meaning “how are you?”
People around here are giddy at the prospect of a President Obama.
“I’m up at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. to listen to BBC news and get the latest on the campaign,” said Nicholas Rajula, who describes himself as a cousin of the senator. “By the way, what’s the latest news about the superdelegates?”
You might think that all Kenyans would be vigorously supporting Obama. But Kenya has been fractured along ethnic lines in the last two months, so now Obama draws frenzied support from the Luo ethnic group of his ancestors, while many members of the rival Kikuyu group fervently support Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The Obamas are better off than most in the area, for Mama Sarah’s house has a tin roof – a step up from the mud huts with thatch roofs that are common in the village. Mama Sarah also has a cell phone, which she charges from a solar panel, and a radio that she uses to follow primaries in America.
But the poverty is unmistakable. Jane Raila, who says she is another relative of the senator’s, was hobbling barefoot with a homemade crutch, for she had been crippled by polio as a child.
“We’re all very excited by the news from the U.S.,” she said. “We stay up late to listen to the news bulletins.”
Obama’s late grandfather is said to have been the first person in the area to wear Western clothes rather than just a loincloth. For a time he converted to Christianity and adopted the family name Johnson.
Later he converted to Islam, taking four wives. Obama’s father, who apparently converted to Catholicism while attending a Roman Catholic school, was also polygamous in keeping with local custom, taking an informal Kenyan wife who preceded Obama’s mother but remained a consort, according to accounts by local people and the senator himself.
The father, also named Barack Hussein Obama, was as much of a pathbreaker as his son. He went from herding goats in Kogelo to studying in Hawaii and at Harvard, even if his career as an economist was frustrated in part by ethnic rivalries.
Obama barely knew his father and does not know his Kenyan relatives well. He has visited Kenya three times, most recently very briefly in 2006.
On his last visit, Obama visited two area schools that had been renamed for him. The intention in renaming the schools seems to have been partly to attract funding. One person after another noted pointedly that it was a shame that a school named for a great American should be so dilapidated.
Some of Obama’s innumerable relatives also see him as a meal ticket. They have made arrangements with a tour group to bring buses of visitors to have tea with Mama Sarah.
They are also trying to raise money from interviews with her. I had made arrangements to visit Mama Sarah weeks ago, and she had agreed to speak. But when I showed up, she said that her children had told her to keep quiet. Frantic phone calls. Fierce arguments. Hints that money might make an interview possible. I didn’t pay. I didn’t get the interview.
That’s O.K. Having seen the poverty in Kogelo, I’m less offended by the outstretched palms than awed by the distance that the Obama family spans.
Frankly, I worry that enemies of Obama will seize upon details like his grandfather’s Islamic faith or his father’s polygamy to portray him as an alien or a threat to American values. But snobbishness and paranoia ill-become a nation of immigrants, where one of our truest values is to judge people by their own merits, not their pedigrees. If we call ourselves a land of opportunity, then Obama’s heritage doesn’t threaten American values but showcases them.
The step-grandson of an illiterate, barefoot woman in this village of mud huts in Africa may be the next president of the United States.
Such mobility – powered by education, immigration and hard work – is cause not for disparagement but for celebration.