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Obama name is magic in Kenya Kenyan Obamas in the spotlight

The president-elect's extended family there is enjoying instant celebrity and its perks, but the fame also has brought challenges.

November 22, 2008|Edmund Sanders | Sanders is a Times staff writer.

NYANGOMA-KOGELO, KENYA — For about 400 people in western Kenya who can call the next U.S. president "part of the family," the business of being an Obama has a whole new meaning.

The modest family compound here has been inundated by hordes of visitors, varying from reporters and local politicians to ordinary Kenyans looking for help in getting U.S. visas, scholarships, jobs or cash. Family matriarch Sarah Onyango, step-grandmother of President-elect Barack Obama, is treated like a rock star wherever she goes.

The Kenyan government, which once ostracized Obama's father, is falling over itself to attend to the family. There's a new road, 24-hour police security and an electricity line -- the first in the village. It was installed hours after the U.S. election results were announced, bypassing neighbors who have been waiting years for a connection.

"Dealing with all this," Said Obama, the president-elect's uncle, said with a sigh, "it's been like a full-time job."

In U.S. politics, presidential relatives are always something of a wild card, often the subject of curiosity or controversy. But the Obamas of Kenya promise to be a first family like none America has seen.

Here in sleepy Nyangoma-Kogelo, the Obamas are widely admired as the richest family in a town of about 2,000, successful farmers who have always helped neighbors in need, and flirted with the political elite when Obama's Harvard-educated father rose to a prominent government post.

But though they're at the top of the social ladder at home, the international spotlight has cast the family in an unfamiliar role -- as poor relations who suddenly appear to have hit it big. Overnight, they've gone from Kennedys to Clampetts.

It's true that by U.S. standards many of the family members are relatively poor, living in mud-brick homes with no running water or, until recently, electricity. A few have tried to cash in on Obama's success by selling their stories.

One of Obama's half-brothers, who lives in a Nairobi slum, was thrust into the campaign after international news reports said he was homeless, living on $1 a month. (His story was used in Republican ads attacking Obama's "family values," but the brother later insisted that he had been misquoted. Obama's campaign dismissed the issue without commenting.)

The family's beloved, wise-cracking "Granny" wears colorful head scarves and slaughters chickens in the backyard. The 86-year-old Onyango is likely to steal the show at Obama's inauguration, where she has promised to bring homemade chapati -- a traditional Kenyan flatbread that is a favorite of the president-elect.

"Do you really think I'm going to be left behind?" she cracked when asked whether she would travel to the United States to see her step-grandson sworn in.

But as the postelection celebration fades, the Obamas of Kenya are discovering that their instant celebrity is posing challenges to their identity and unity. Most hurtful, they say, are those depictions of them as "beggars" who are expecting handouts from their now-famous relation.

"We support Barack, but we have no expectations," said half-sister Auma Obama, who has the closest relationship with the president-elect and acts as a family spokeswoman.

"We have not lacked and don't expect to lack in anything," she said. "There isn't an expectation that our lives are going to change because Barack has become president."

Onyango, who until the recent flurry of attention still worked in the fields tending her crops, said she hoped life would return to normal. "We don't feel that we should or ought to be treated differently," she said.

But like it or not, their lives have changed dramatically.

After Obama's victory was announced, crowds at the family house got so rowdy that the clan called the U.S. Embassy for help. Kenyan police promptly arrived, but began roughing up some of the invited guests.

"Let's face it," said security expert Fred Burton of Stratfor, an international consulting firm, "the grandmother's life will never be the same."

Under U.S. law, presidential spouses and underage children get Secret Service protection, but siblings, parents and other relatives are on their own, said Burton, a former Secret Service agent who guarded former President Reagan, as well as Princess Diana and Yasser Arafat on visits to the U.S.

Before Obama, no president in recent memory had so many relatives living outside the United States, he said, creating unprecedented security concerns.

Their protection now falls to Kenyan police, which despite training and funding by the United States, Britain and Israel, has a spotty record.

"This is way out of their league," said one Western diplomat.

For example, Al Qaeda fugitive Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who is wanted in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, has been arrested at least once and released by Kenyan police officers who didn't recognize him. He routinely moves in and out of the country.

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