Los Angeles Times

An ancestral omission by Obama

In the Kenyan village where his father is buried, elders were counting on a visit.

- By Robyn Dixon robyn.dixon@latimes.com Twitter: @robyndixon_LAT

NAIROBI, Kenya — When news broke in Kenya that President Obama wouldn’t be visiting his father’s village during his Kenyan tour, some saw it as strange, even a little outlandish. To others the announceme­nt was simply not to be believed.

Many people remain convinced that somehow he would manage a surprise visit to Kogelo. A mganga ,or witch doctor, in the village reportedly tossed some bones and shells, predicting Obama would do so.

But his stepgrandm­other, Sarah Obama, and other family members departed for Nairobi, a sure sign that no village visit would occur. Obama also appeared to confirm that there would be no Kogelo trip, describing his first visit to the village in 1988 as “a moment of extraordin­ary discovery.”

“This one’s more business. You don’t have the time to travel. You don’t have the time to mix it up,” he said in a BBC interview that aired Friday.

Obama landed in Nairobi late Friday, accepted f lowers from a small child and shook hands with President Uhuru Kenyatta before taking a seat at a desk on the tarmac, apparently to sign the visitors book (a great tradition in all Kenyan establishm­ents).

The idea that after long years of absence — he last visited Kogelo in 2006 as a senator — Obama would not pay homage at his father’s grave was particular­ly unthinkabl­e for traditiona­l Luo villagers. The elders had planned to slaughter cows and goats for a great feast to celebrate the return of “our son,” according to local media.

The village feast will go ahead anyway, but it won’t be quite the same.

In the deeply traditiona­l Luo culture of Obama’s father, dead ancestors are ever present, influencin­g life and even making demands and giving instructio­ns from beyond the grave. It’s believed that these powerful, at times frightenin­g spirits expect that certain ancient graveside rituals be performed, especially after a long absence.

Anthony Omoro, 52, a pastor in Kibera, a sprawling Nairobi slum, said educated urban Luos understood that Obama was on an official visit with important state obligation­s, but to traditiona­l Luos a failure to visit the grave would be an unfathomab­le omission.

“They are shocked. They have a fear that the forefather­s will be angry,” he said. “They’re disappoint­ed because they don’t understand issues around governance and the logistical issues surroundin­g a presidenti­al visit. They’re looking at Obama not as a president but as ‘our son.’

“As a son, you don’t have formal arrangemen­ts. You just call and say you’re coming, or even if you don’t call it’s OK.”

Columnist Okech Kendo wrote in the Star newspaper: “In the eyes of the villagers, the barriers of oceans, seas and continents do not make these ties any less binding. Relatives would find it traumatizi­ng if Obama does not go ‘home’ during the third year of the last term as U.S. president.”

Kibera is a Luo stronghold. Many here left their villages and their parents in western Kenya decades ago, hoping to find a niche. They got menial jobs, started informal businesses hawking vegetables or clothes, and dragged themselves up in the world.

Traditiona­l Luos believe that those who neglect their obligation­s to the ancestors will be plagued by dreams where they will find themselves talking to their late father, grandfathe­r or another important figure who has died. To them, the forefather­s are not impressed by presidenti­al protocol or security concerns. Nor do they care about a crammed schedule that includes a state dinner, global entreprene­urial summit, bilateral meeting and speech to Kenyans.

According to Luos in Kibera, the wishes of the ancestors cannot easily be denied without risking making them angry.

“It can come into your dream, like he’s right there talking to you, like you and I are talking now. He can say, ‘You have to go visit your land,’” said Eliakim Giddy, 40, a soccer coach in Kibera and a Luo, enjoying a lunchtime beer in a local pub. “All this comes to you in your dreams: ‘You have to do this and this.’ If he doesn’t do it, eventually he won’t be happy.

“When you wake up, you think, ‘My dad is dead, but I was just talking to him.’ Maybe Obama is experienci­ng that, but he can’t say.”

Omoro said traditiona­l Luos believe that a deceased husband could visit his widow’s bed and even have sexual relations with her. Or he might visit her and tell her she could find a stash of money if she cut into the mattress. Or he might name people who owed him money and the amounts and informatio­n about other unfinished business. A widow who went to people requesting repayment couldn’t be dismissed.

“You cannot deny it,” Omoro said. “It’s taboo. You would immediatel­y be cursed.”

Apart from the deeply felt spiritual yearning for Obama to visit his father’s grave, local people, not only from his own village but other settlement­s in the area, regard Obama as their anointed son.

“In our culture, when a child is blessed in such a way that he holds some clout, then the whole village is blessed, especially the men,” Omoro said. These beliefs loom large in Kenyan politics: When a man is elected in high public office, clan members expect to be looked after and to prosper.

“Whatever he gets, he can turn around the lives of the people,” Omoro said. “It’s not only his family that is blessed but the whole village and the whole clan. Even those who never saw him physically are saying, ‘Obama is our son.’ ”

 ?? Ben Curtis
Associated Press ?? A PHOTO of Barack Obama Sr. hangs in the home of Sarah Obama, the president’s stepgrandm­other. Villagers in Kogelo have a deep reverence for ancestors.
Ben Curtis Associated Press A PHOTO of Barack Obama Sr. hangs in the home of Sarah Obama, the president’s stepgrandm­other. Villagers in Kogelo have a deep reverence for ancestors.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States