A multi-billion shilling international university, a youth empowerment centre — complete with libraries, halls and a 15,000-seater sports complex – and an ultra-modern early childhood development centre are the latest additions to the fast-changing face of K’ogelo village in Siaya County.
And as President Barack Obama prepares to leave office after serving two terms as the principal tenant at the White House, it appears that he is keen on his legacy being felt in the village – and by extension country – of his father’s birth. “The people of K’ogelo have patiently waited to reap from Obama’s rise to stardom. Now we are beginning to feel him,” says Nicholas Rajula, a relative of the American President
The scenic valley is the childhood playground of Obama senior; the same land on which the father of the 44th POTUS walked barefoot to school and grew up herding family goats.
When The Standard on Sunday visited the area, there was a great deal of human activity on the land acquired from several villagers. Men dressed in blue dungarees were putting up a perimeter fence, as women fetched water from the nearby Yala River to the construction site.
These activities have got everyone in the village talking. “President Obama will be coming to spend his holidays here when he retires,” a respected village elder told The Standard on Sunday team in Kogelo. “At least this is what we know, otherwise what will they do with all this large parcel of land?” It is on this land, near Katuda Primary School, that a multi-billion shilling international university is being built.
The university complex, we are told, is to be named after President Obama. President Obama’s sister, Dr Auma Obama, attempted to water down the excitement, but confirmed that the university project is real and ongoing. “It is not a holiday home. We are building an international university,” Dr Auma said in an interview. But the university is only one of the many mega projects coming up in K’ogelo and which are directly associated with the Kenyan family of POTUS.
In about six months, Americans will have their 45th president in office. During his visit to Kenya in July last year, President Obama promised to give more assistance to Kenyans and visit Kogelo more often after leaving office next year. At the family dinner in Nairobi on arrival in Kenya, Obama asked his relatives to forgive him for not being able to visit and see them as often as he would have wanted because of the restrictions of his office. “Part of the challenge that I have had during the course of my presidency has been that given the demands of the job and the security bubble, I can’t come here and just go upcountry and visit for a week and meet everybody,” he said.
“Once I am a private citizen, I will have more freedom to reconnect and to be involved and engaged in the work that needs to be done because some of these communities are very poor.” President Obama made history by becoming the first African American President of the United States of Amercia. The fact that his father, the late Barack Hussein Obama Snr, was a son of the once sleepy K’ogelo village gave Kenya a special slot at the White House. This explains why K’ogelo is restless as “Barry” (President Barack) prepares to retire.
Talk is rife that Barry is planning to use part of the 50-hectares land to build a holiday home. Villagers say they have heard that a leafy holiday home befitting a President will be put up on the land bought from the locals at an undisclosed amount of money. But Dr Auma, the face of the many development projects, laughed off this theory, dismissing it as rumour. She said the villagers were being overzealous and getting too excited about the success of their son.
Asked whether the university would take the entire 50 hectares, Dr Auma said a number of other projects, which she did not name, have been lined up for the area. Pressed further on the funding for the institution, she requested, “Let me prepare more information, which I will share with you freely before the month ends.” Spot checks by The Standard on Sunday established that only a few metres away, along the banks of the river, sits a fortified institution: a youth empowerment centre – complete with a 15,000-seater sports complex – being put up by Sauti Kuu Foundation, an international NGO, headed by Dr Auma.
Part of the work on this project is done. About two kilometres away, at the Nyangoma K’ogelo Primary School, more workers sweat profusely as they race against time to make special bricks to be used in the construction of yet another complex. Under the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation, an orphanage and early childhood development centre is being set up. These projects form part of President Obama’s legacy in his ancestral village as he prepares to leave office. Although President Obama is not directly funding the projects, the family has used the goodwill associated with his office to raise the funds.
Mr Rajula has been to the US several times and pictures he took with the US President hang on the wall of his office at the K’ogelo Village Resort, a facility whose cottages are named after President Obama, his wife Michele and daughters Malia and Shasha. “K’ogelo has truly become America’s 53rd State. All these projects you are seeing coming up are because of our son Obama. He may not be directly involved but we are riding on his goodwill,” said Rajula. “We will soon have an international university with ultra-modern facilities.
The Mama Sara Obama Foundation is helping hundreds of children. The Obama legacy will live forever and K’ogelo will never be the same again. I wish his father was alive to see all these.” Rajula, a former civic leader, heaps praises on Dr Auma: “She has done a marvelous job. She is the key link between K’ogelo and President Obama.” But it is the planned $12 million (Sh1.2 billion) Mama Sarah Obama Legacy Campus that is set to epitomise President Obama’s relationship with the land of his father.
Interviews with sources close to the Obama family say the complex, whose architectural drawings were done by a German-based architect from Burkina Faso, Francis Kerer, is different from the international university project. In an Architectural impression of the Mama Sarah Obama Legacy Campus posted on his website, Kerer says that in establishing a lasting educational resource for underserved and at-risk youth in Kenya, the project is the culmination of Mama Sarah’s lifetime of service towards helping orphans and impoverished families feed and educate their children.
He explains, “Located in K’ogelo, the birthplace of President Barack Obama’s father, the Legacy project is an educational campus that will serve upwards of one thousand students and pre-schoolers. The project is comprised of three major components; a secondary school, a primary school, and an early childhood development centre.”
According to the architect, the project is meant to promote a sustainable approach to community-strengthening and education. He says each school is uniquely designed for its specific age group with age-appropriate libraries, playgrounds and sports fields. “By creating educational environments that promote curiosity and critical-thinking, students will anticipate educational advancement and will be prepared to succeed in their everyday lives beyond the classroom,” says the award winning architect.
Kerer is a recipient of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (2004), Global Award for Sustainable Architecture (2009) and BSI Swiss Architectural Award in 2010, among others. Villagers have been awed by the on-going activities. “If what we are seeing and hearing succeeds, then Kogelo will be a big city in the next 10 years,” says one of the workers at the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation brick making site. Both Rajula and President Obama’s uncle, Said Obama, said that the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation is actively raising funds to support this much needed educational resource in K’ogelo.
Dr Auma remained cagey about the Obama legacy projects, only promising to give comprehensive interviews after hosting a team from Germany set to visit the village later this month. Said Obama, however, said, “Yes, it is true we have legally bought land from the locals with a view to putting up a meaningful development project.” Close family sources said that there was a strong possibility that President Obama, upon his retirement would be making frequent visits to Kogelo and even participating directly in some of the projects.
Given that during his presidency, his hands were tied and he could not engage in any direct development projects with his ancestral family, things could be different in his retirement. Mr Rajula said he was building a presidential suit at his hotel, which would accommodate leaders of Obama’s status. “I have hosted big people here, including CORD leader Raila Odinga and diplomats. We are still making it better,” he says (see a separate story).
Mr Rajula said President Obama had a lot of attachment to Ko’gelo and would want the village where his father was born to have the very best. “He is very fond of Mama Sarah. This is why well-wishers may want to help the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation, which has changed the lives of many orphans and vulnerable children,” says Rajula. Family members who met President Obama in Nairobi when he visited last year speak of a man eager to maintain ties with his ancestry.
Betty Obama, the President’s aunt who attended the family dinner with Obama in Nairobi, remembers how he brushed aside a memorandum from the family, asking them to wait as he would embark on those projects after leaving office. “Our family will unite with or without money. Your sense of vision is the greatest window to the outer word,” President Obama told them.
It was the grandma Mama Sarah Obama who mockingly tickled him to the reactions when she asked: “What have you brought for me after a prolonged period of silence?” But in a tactful answer, the President, with a soft smile said, “I want you to relish the positive side of my leadership that things will work out.” Separately, an NGO with American links has moved into K’ogelo to do their part in eliminating “visible poverty”.
Staff from the NGO are researching for households that live in abject poverty and helping them rebuild their houses. Each identified household, we have established, is getting Sh80,000 to build new houses. Mama Sarah said these were part of the many benefits that residents were enjoying on account of the Obama presidency.