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Obama name is magic in Kenya Kenyan Obamas in the spotlight

COLUMN ONE

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.

Still, Kenyan authorities insist that they can handle the job. Police set up tents to provide 24-hour protection for the grandmother after a burglar broke into the compound in September. A permanent police station is being built 200 yards away.

"We are up to the task," said Johnston Ipara, police commander for the Siaya district.

For the family, of course, there also have been other fringe benefits to their fame. In addition to the security and infrastructure improvements, family members are fielding various offers for jobs, partnerships and endorsement deals.

Said Obama, who struggled for more than a decade amid Kenya's chronic unemployment to find full-time work, acknowledges that he probably owes his current job as a mechanic at a factory co-owned by the prime minister's family to his relationship with Obama.

"The Obama name is now a powerful key to open doors," he said. "But the family is wary. I don't want to exploit my relationship with Barack."

Other family members have been more assertive. Malik Obama, the eldest half-brother, has asked reporters seeking interviews to first make donations to his "Barack H. Obama Foundation," which he said funds school uniforms and community projects.

When the election results were announced, Malik Obama held a separate news conference after being nudged out of the family's official briefing.

"The children used to be close," said Charles Oluoch, a cousin. "But with the election, everyone is fighting to be closest to the president."

According to Said Obama, tensions are unavoidable.

"Our family is diverse," he said. "Before the election we needed unity. We didn't want to be seen as talking at cross-purposes. After the election, it doesn't matter."

In a 2006 interview with The Times, Obama acknowledged the expectations of his large family in Kenya, some of whom he has never met.

"Everyone in the village feels related," he said. "Some family members are very close; others I feel less close to."

Oluoch, who lives 100 miles away with about 200 other Obamas in a second ancestral village called Kobama, complained that the Kogelo wing was getting all the attention and investment. In Kobama, residents recently spruced up the gravestone of Obama's great-grandfather and are preserving a mud hut "where the president once slept" as a potential tourist attraction.

He said the Obamas have a proud history of producing prosperous leaders with a knack for breaking down racial barriers.

Obama's grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama befriended white settlers when others feared the strangers as "unclean." After serving with the British army in Tanzania during World War I, he learned English, adopted Western dress and eventually worked as a cook in colonialists' homes.

"At first, everyone in the village feared him, but eventually they came to admire him because he could talk to a white person," said Alfred Obama, 76, a nephew of Onyango who lives in Kobama.

Over the years, he introduced many European customs to the village, such as eating from plates with utensils, planting trees, deep-frying food and maintaining an immaculate home.

Although Onyango was standoffish, Sarah was outgoing and down-to-earth.

"She hasn't changed at all," said Leocadia Ndalo, 78, a former housekeeper for Onyango's house who lives next door. After Ndalo's husband died, she said, Sarah lent her two acres of land so she could support herself.

Thanks to Hussein Onyango's belief in education, Barack Obama Sr., his son by an earlier wife, became one of the first Kenyans to study in the U.S. There he met and married Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, from Kansas; she divorced him in 1964.

Upon his return to Kenya, Obama Sr. rose through the ranks of the post-independence government as a well-respected economist whose friends included the current president and prime minister.

On trips home to his village, usually in a fancy car, Obama Sr. always brought cabbages and potatoes for every household. He found government jobs for numerous villagers.

But the family's political rise was short-lived. By the early 1970s, the elder Obama's tendency to criticize his superiors and a worsening alcohol problem led to a career spiral that left him dejected and broke. As a Luo, he found himself the victim of rising tribalism as Kikuyus seized control of the government.

Old friends abandoned him. In 1982, Obama ran his car off the road after a night of drinking and was killed. He was 46.

Sarah Onyango worried about the family's future.

"She said, 'Now that this has happened to our son, what will happen us?' " recalled Ndalo, the former housekeeper. "The family was very bitter about the way they were treated."

Barack Obama's election brought a sense of vindication, friends and family members say, particularly as government officials have made the trek down the dirt road to the Obama compound to pay their respects. President Mwai Kibaki declared a national holiday in Obama's honor.

"The death was a great blow to the Obamas," Oluoch, the cousin, said. "We had no one else to be proud of. But 26 years later, God gave us another one."

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edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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