In Kenya, Two Villages Vie For Obama Ties

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In western Kenya, two villages claim ties to Barack Obama, but only one of them has gotten the limelight and the benefits that have come with Obama's election. The other village, Kobama, says it's the ancestral home of the Obama clan, but it's having a hard time getting on the map — literally.


President Obama has well-publicized roots in Kenya. The village where his father is buried has been swarming with international press since then Senator Obama visited in 2006. It's called Kogelo. But the president also has relatives in another village nearby, and they say they'd like some attention too. NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Tourists come to Africa every year to see what is called the big five - elephants, leopards, buffalos, rhinos, and lions - that remind us that the world is still a magical place. But the Kenyan Tourist Board is hoping that foreigners will come to see their big six: elephants, leopards, buffalos, rhinos, lions, and Obamas. Southwestern Kenya is home to the extended family of U.S. President Barack Obama. His father is buried not far from the shores of Lake Victoria, and so was his father's father. Fred Okeyo(ph) works for the Kenya Tourist Board. He says Obama is good for business.

Mr. FRED OKEYO (Kenya Tourist Board): Because of his linkage with Kenya, we've seen a great amount of interest from the travel trade and from various parts of the world.

THOMPKINS: And Kenya could use a boost. Okeyo says tourism plunged by nearly 30 percent in 2008 because of post-election violence here. But Kogelo, Kenya, the tiny farming village to which Mr. Obama referred in his inaugural address, could be a draw. The Kenyan government has plans to tarmac the dirt road leading to Kogelo, and they've also brought electricity there and expanded the water supply. But so far there are no plans to improve another village that claims the Obama pedigree. It's called Kobama. That's where Mr. Obama's great grandfather lived and died. But even Fred Okeyo is unclear about exactly where Kobama is.

Mr. OKEYO: No. I've not been to a town called Kobama. Where is that, huh?

THOMPKINS: It's not on the map, but then Kogelo isn't on the map either. Both communities are several miles from the regional capital of southwestern Kenya, and both communities are surrounded by handsome countryside. Sometimes when the sun catches the landscape just so, the area looks like a painting by one of the old masters, one of those Flemish pastoral scenes. And while Kogelo is reveling in its good fortune, the folks in Kobama say they could use some of that tarmac, electricity, and water piping too. Eli Muga Obilo Obama(ph) says his father and the president's grandfather were brothers.

Mr. ELI MUGA OBILO OBAMA: We don't see the reason as to why we should be left out, because we are also real family members. So if the government or any organization has something for them, then we should also expect to get the same. If we are given something, we won't mind.

THOMPKINS: The Obamas of Kobama say they recall a visit from a young Barack in the mid 1980s. Cousins point out a house where he is said to have slept for two nights. They are hoping for a museum in Kobama. Roy Obama(ph) is a distant cousin of the president.

Mr. ROY OBAMA: Everybody wants to associate with his family, including the government, nongovernmental organizations. And because of that, we are expecting development.

THOMPKINS: When then Senator Obama visited Kenya again in 2006, he skipped Kobama. But the people here say they didn't take offense. Many went to Kogelo to see him because that's what you do for family. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Kobama, Kenya.

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