Sunday, July 27, 2008

Barack Obama's broken promise to African village

by David Cohen, Evening Standard

It is an extraordinary sight to walk into a basic two-room house under a mango tree in rural east Africa and discover what is essentially a shrine to Barack Obama.

The small brick house with no running water, a tin roof and roving chickens, goats and cows is owned by Sarah Obama,Barack's 86-year-old step-grandmother. Inside, the walls are decorated with a 2008 Obama election sticker, an old "Barack Obama for Senate" poster on which he has written "Mama Sarah Habai [how are you?]", a 2005 calendar that says "The Kenyan Wonder Boy in the US", and more than a dozen family photos.

But this bucolic scene in his father's village of Kogelo near the Equator in western Kenya conceals a troubling reality that, until now, has never been spoken about. Barack Obama, the Evening Standard can reveal, after we went to the village earlier this month, has failed to honour the pledges of assistance that he made to a school named in his honour when he visited here amid great fanfare two years ago.

At that historic homecoming in August 2006 Obama was greeted as a hero with thousands lining the dirt streets of Kogelo. He visited the Senator Obama Kogelo Secondary School built on land donated by his paternal grandfather.

After addressing the pupils, a third of whom are orphans, and dancing with them as they sang songs in his honour, he was shown a school with four dilapidated classrooms that lacked even basic resources such as water, sanitation and

He told the assembled press, local politicians (who included current Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga), and students: "Hopefully I can provide some assistance in the future to this school and all that it can be." He then turned to the school's principal, Yuanita Obiero, and assured her and her teachers: "I know you are working very hard and struggling to bring up this school, but I have said I will assist the school and I will do so."

Obiero says that although Obama did not explicitly use the word "financial" to qualify the nature of the assistance he was offering, "there was no doubt among us [teachers] that is what he meant. We interpreted his words as meaning
he would help fund the school, either personally or by raising sponsors or both, in order to give our school desperately-needed modern facilities and a facelift
". She added that 10 of the school's 144 pupils are Obama's relatives. Obiero was not the only one to think that the US Senator from Illinois, who had recently acquired a $1.65 million house in Chicago, would cough up. Obama's own grandmother Sarah confidently told reporters before his visit:

"When he comes down here, he will change the face of the school and, believe me, our poverty in Kogelo will be a thing of the past."

But the Evening Standard has heard that the promises he made to help the school as well as a local orphanage appear to have been empty.

Seven months ago I travelled to Iowa to cover the start of the US primaries and was impressed by Obama's charisma and integrity as he kicked off a thrilling battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

Now, with only John McCain standing in the way of him making history as America's first black President, and amid the fanfare over his current world tour, nowhere is this possibility more eagerly awaited than in Kogelo, the place where his father and grandfather are buried. Yet there is disappointment and hurt here, too. Granting us access to the school and its records, Principal Obiero, 48, tells us: "Senator Obama has not honoured the promises he gave me when we met in 2006 and in his earlier letter to the school. He has not given us even one shilling. But we still have hope."

The letter Obiero refers to - dated 22 June 2005, signed by Obama and addressed to her - was written after his election to the US Senate in 2004 and hangs, framed, on the wall of her spartan office alongside photographs of Obama's visit to their school. It says: "I am honoured that you have decided to rename the Kogelo School in my name.The land that the school is built on was donated by my grandparents and I am proud to carry on the tradition of supporting the school."

Obiero and her board of governors followed up his letter offering " support" with a bald, formal request for funds in the form of a nine-page proposal, a copy of which has been provided to the Evening Standard, laying out their ambitions for the school. In it they ask for 8.2 million Kenyan shillings (approximately £65,000) to upgrade the school. The money would be used, they say, to bring water to the school by sinking a borehole and building a water
tank, erect a perimeter fence, complete the science laboratory and add muchneeded new classrooms, additional latrines, and a school dining hall.

Obiero recalls: "When the US Ambassador William Bellamy came to visit the school for the official renaming ceremony in February 2006, we gave him two copies of the proposal, one for the Embassy and one to give to Senator Obama. But we have not heard anything from either of them since."

Recently, she adds, she gave another copy of the proposal to Obama's Kenyan half-sister, Auma Obama, who recently returned to Nairobi after living in England and working in children's services in Reading. Auma had been married to a British man but they are now divorced. "Auma also promised to pass it on to her brother," says Obiero.

When we ask an Obama spokesperson in Kenya, who is also a family member, why no support has been forthcoming, he says: "We have no comment, the family are not doing any interviews at this time."

However, the school's senior teacher Dalmas Raloo, 41, who is often used as a translator for Obama's grandmother who only speaks Luo, and is a friend of the family, says the family are mystified by what they are calling "Obama's lapse". "If you ask whether Obama's family think he should give something to the village and to the school, the answer is 'yes, definitely'. But they feel it should come from him spontaneously. They don't want to ask him for it."

During Obama's visit to the school, he opened their half-finished science laboratory (built with £4,900 raised by the community) and wrote in the visitor's book: "Congratulations on the new laboratory!" Today, the lab has been mothballed because they ran out of funds to equip it and because, critically, there is no running water. "We must pay the man with the donkey to fetch us water from the river four kilometres away," says Obiero. The situation in the school mirrors that of Kogelo village where the people live without water, electricity or access to proper
healthcare and on average incomes of less than $1 a day. Yet they remain diehard fans of the man who has put their rural community on the map and have even renamed the beer, called Senator, in his honour: locals now order "an Obama".

Obama's "lapse" is all the more difficult to understand given that he wrote in his 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father, that Kogelo occupies a special place in his heart as being where he reconciled the diverse parts of
himself - American and African, white mother and black father. Obama wrote how he fell to his knees, sobbing, between the graves of his father and grandfather at the family compound.

"When my tears were finally spent," he wrote, "I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realised that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America - the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I'd witnessed in Chicago - all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away."

Obama had visited Kogelo for the first time in the 1980s after attending Columbia University and then again in 1991 to research his memoirs after graduating from Harvard Law School. He would later become a civil rights lawyer and community organiser before going into politics and serving in the Illinois Senate in 1997 and then the US Senate in 2004.

On those two voyages of personal discovery to Kogelo, he learned that his grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, who lived to 105 according to his gravestone (1870-1975), had been a respected elder and witchdoctor. But it was the road travelled by his estranged father, Barack Hussein Obama, that inspired and intrigued him. His father had transcended his roots as a goat herder to get a PhD at Harvard and work for the Kenyan government before falling from grace and dying in a car accident in 1982 at just 46.

Barack's father, an economist, had split up with his white mother, Ann Dunham, from Kansas, when Barack was two. Apart from a month-long visit from his father when he was 10 years old, Obama would know him only through letters.
As an adult he learned there was a darker side to his father, reflecting in his book that he had apparently also been "a bitter drunk", "an abusive husband", and "a defeated, lonely bureaucrat". But during this process of soul-searching he came to know and adore the elderly woman who had raised his father, his step-grandmother Sarah Obama.

We had been told that Sarah's house, which is adjacent to the school, was patrolled by two armed security guards - who pays their wages is not clear - but when we visited the home, Sarah was away in Nairobi and we were shown in by one of Obama's young cousins.

The house is basic with a concrete floor, an outside kitchen, latrines and no running water. The only sign of modernity is the recently installed solar power unit that provides electricity for lights and a television set.
Chairs are neatly laid out around the sides of the living room, each with an embroidered cover and as you enter, there is a photograph of a young Barack Obama bent over under the weight of a sack of maize.

THE graves of Obama's father and grandfather are in the yard, and Obama's cousins and uncles, including Said Obama, 41, his father's younger brother, also live on the compound in smaller one-room houses. Behind the house there is a thriving maize plantation and a clump of banana trees in addition to the giant mango trees that dominate the property. Villagers say that despite her age, Sarah Obama still comes to market where she sells her homegrown fruit and vegetables.

The market is where we head next to speak to villagers about their hopes for an Obama victory in November and what it might do for their village. Mary Manasse, 40, who runs the Mama Siste Mini Shop selling staples such as bread and cow's milk (packaged in old Coke bottles) says she has a photograph of Obama shaking hands with her on his 2006 visit.

"Back then I was looking after 40 orphans at the orphan centre," she recalls. "We faced a desperate shortage of money and Obama told us that he especially liked special, dedicated projects like ours and wanted to help. We thought he would give funds to help our project but we got nothing. A few months later we were forced to shut down the orphan centre because of lack of funds. Just a million Kenyan shillings [£6,000] would have kept us going another year. I feel disappointed that he did not come through."

A few stalls away mango-seller Gladys Anyango, 60, does an impromptu Obama impression to the amusement of her fellow peddlers. She places her hands on her hips, gazes into the middle distance and, mimicking his deep voice, says: "How are you, people of Kogelo?" Her friends collapse with laughter. She also takes off Obama's wife, Michelle, who had accompanied him on his visit along with his two daughters, Malia and Sasha.

"Oh, but there will be a big party here when Obama wins," she adds. "We still have hope that he will bring electricity and build schools so the children have a good education. Maybe when he's President of America, he'll remember his roots and look after his community in Kenya."


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