Promises + an unusual autograph = date with Barack Obama

A VIP pass for the US President’s visit comes along in a most unusual way

The US President Barack Obama ended his trip to his ancestral home on Sunday urging Kenyans to take responsibility for their future. When he closed his historic visit with an address to the people, The Journalist correspondent Argwings Odera was there… invited to be part of the entourage by the President’s local relatives. Obama recalled his family background. His grandfather was a cook for the country’s former British rulers and his father left to seek an education in America.

“Aish, the father of Opiyo has brought us far indeed,” elderly aunt Hawa Auma Obama remarked in the Luo language minutes after her famous nephew bade farewell to Kenya at the Kasarani stadium auditorium on Sunday. Opiyo is the family’s traditional name for America’s number one citizen.

The US President has indeed brought us all far. Here I was with Obama’s sister Auma, his brothers including Hussein and Malik, the extended family and their spouses. I was there by the dint of my friendship with Hussein and a unique promise a year ago. We looked very smart indeed with our VIP reservation and outfits to match that morning when Obama delivered a memorable speech. He was within hugging distance from where we were seated.

Wuon [“the father of”] Opiyo is the Luo customary name of the US president in honour of his great-grandfather Obama Opiyo. Younger brother Hussein is Mama Sarah’s “husband”, according to Luo tradition, being the last-born boy.

His expected “husband” role was to enquire about the well-being and welfare of granny Sarah.

Social media went abuzz about our appearance. Online Kenyan editor Shitemi Khamadi commented how motley, famished and rag-tag Obama’s guests looked. Obama, pundits had suggested before his arrival, was too ashamed of his family.

Beforehand they had predicted that he would not even make the trip to his ancestral land Kisumu.


Hanging Out with Obama

On the contrary, the US President did the exact opposite. He had close to 50 members of his extended family staying close to him and keeping him up till late in the presidential suite of the grand Kempinski Villa Rosa Hotel. The bulk of the staff members had been sent on paid leave and the entire building and parking was reserved for the US guests and the Obama family.

Obama’s elderly aunt Auma wore a Hijab. She sat in the front row along with our President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto who were dressed up like presidents do.

Hussein and I sat next to opposition chiefs Raila Odinga, Moses Wetangula, Kalonzo Musyoka and Martha Karua. Family members were sprinkled in between the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court Willy Mutunga. Eugene Wamalwa was among a few other movers and shakers of the country’s economic and political scene. Many senators, governors, members of parliament, CEOs, diplomats and others had been denied a pass to the VIP area so that the large, seemingly shabby Obama extended family could all be accommodated.

Sitting in the VIP section accorded me the opportunity to take exclusive pictures of the top people. The US Embassy had arranged the seating in such a way that we were in the shadow of the media camera lenses, our backs to the media podium. The strategy was simple – to provide a clear line of sight and prevent the VIPs from intruding on the images of the US President delivering his historic speech. For there was no way local media would have avoided panning in on faces, movements and gestures of the VIPs during delivery of the inspiring speech. This is one of Kenya’s media weaknesses, an almost sycophantic devotion to covering senior politicians, leaving other issues of pertinence uncovered.

Hussein and I, being close friends, played a silly game that spoke of our childlike excitement. We chose to assign reggae music and artists, in low whispers, to every word spoken by Opiyo – “Bob Marley … One Love”, Hussein whispered to me as the US President spoke about unity. “Lucky Dube … Different Colours”, I interjected when Obama spoke about discarding old rivalries and uniting for a brighter future. “Burning Spear … Grandfather”, Hussein said when Obama spoke of his roots. “Fallen Soldiers … Demarco”, I interjected when the US President recognised the role of Kenyan soldiers in various peace keeping missions across the world especially across the border with Somalia.

The reggae music went on and on with Vybz Cartel’s Poor People Land, Eric Donaldson’s This is My Country, Peter Tosh’s Glass House and Mutabarukka’s People’s Court. The latter when he reprimanded local politicians for taking us the ordinary Kenyans for granted.

President Barack Obama in Kenya

President Barack Obama in Kenya

How It All Happened

Now the fact that I was sitting two rows behind my president, with only a casual check from US security, would not have been possible if it were not for a friendship that developed with a news source – the very Hussein.

I had been assigned by Radio Netherlands last year to track down Hussein Obama and report his experiences of the 2007 post-election violence that left over 1 000 dead and many more maimed or displaced. This event had led both president Uhuru and Ruto to face charges against humanity at the International Criminals Court (ICC) at The Hague, Netherlands. Charges against Uhuru were dropped after prosecutor Fatou Bensouda submitted that her core witnesses had either been assassinated or disappeared.

I met Hussein in his Huruma slum dwelling in the capital Nairobi. He refused to engage with me saying I was just another reporter out to write how he was a worthless drunken bum. I would have loved to do that story, I assured him, but my editors were not interested in his alcohol consumption. We needed to share his experience of election violence only.

After the story was published, Hussein, and cousin Rajab, agreed the report was fair.

“I will organise useful contacts for you,” he promised. A reward for fair journalism. His undertaking to open the Oval Office appeared far-fetched because he seemed too far from his famous brother’s contacts. Over time we met regularly either to do Huruma community-based stories or to catch up over a game of Scrabble. Both of us were sore losers.

Helping Obama’s Brother Escape

As his brother’s first ever visit to Kenya as Commander In Chief loomed, Hussein wanted to get away from all the hectic associations of his hood in Huruma. He moved houses over 100 kilometres away near the border with Tanzania. But his Huruma influences were also catching up with him there. And at a time when he needed private moments to reflect, before the pressures of his very powerful brother’s visit.

Already local, foreign and social media were spewing out content on how Obama was going to snub Hussein, because of his perceived alcoholism. How he was going to give a wide-berth to Malik for selling personal letters. The media portrayed a shameful, woeful state of President Obama’s relations with his extended family in Kenya. Hussein received reports of strange people asking for him, largely suspected to be media.

I offered Hussein that he could accompany me to my home in Nyakach between the shores of Lake Victoria and River Miriu. A place I go to frequently for home-building and to get away from Nairobi, since being orphaned six years ago

“But you are one of them … you are also the media,” Hussein said to me in an accusing tone.

For over two weeks we spent time together performing chores, sharing ideas, doing menial labour in the distant Kisumu town, meditating, reading and enjoying leisurely moments, something unprecedented for both of us.

Digging Up A Septic Tank

“I have never spent even a week in a rural area, let alone in my home in Kogelo,” Hussein remarked. “Neither have I spent such a long time together with any visitor here,” I added as we dug up a septic tank for the recently installed toilet.

In the last days of his visit at my rural home, the K24 television news crew came to interview Hussein… with his permission and no encouragement on my part. The station’s reporters Purity Mwambia and Violet Otindo asked why I did not want to do Hussein’s story myself.

“That was part of the arrangement.”

Two days before his big brother’s arrival, Hussein had had enough and felt stronger. He encouraged me to be somewhere in Nairobi during his brother’s visit. “I made a promise … remember?”

Meanwhile, the week before the US president’s visit, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had released a Kenya report titled: “Broken Promises, How Kenya is failing to uphold its commitment to a free press”. I was a contributor in the report with the headline: “Press phobia”.

On the second night of the President’s visit, I was with Hussein taking a copy of the report to share with Obama when the call came that he had to go to the Young Men’s Christians Association (YMCA). There official transport was awaiting to take him to Nairobi State House for a State dinner organised for his brother. He was told that they would later proceed to the hotel to join other family members for a catch up before the US President retired for the night.

“I will deliver this report to my brother,” he said. “I know that is what you want. Come with a replacement copy for me.” He suggested that I autograph the report so that the President could know who it came from and that the writer was a friend. Around midnight after the dinner, Hussein called saying he had something for me.

He came with my VIP card for the President’s address. At first I was incredulous, disbelieving and over the moon that he had taken the report to the President.

Hussei leading the Obama family to the stadium

Hussei leading the Obama family to the stadium

Aunty Auma Couldn’t Run

Still in disbelief I found myself forced to walk over a kilometer round Kasarani to reach the allotted Gate 12. The gates were due to close and orders were being sought from the US embassy security and staff to grant permission. An official at the embassy monitoring the family’s slow progress to the stadium ordered the gate kept open until the entry of the family.

Our progress was painfully slow because of Aunt Auma whose effort at running the kilometer was just unbearable. We were at gate 3, and each gate was separated by a hundred metres. So we were walking 1.2 kilometres. The Kenyan security blocking the roads could hear none of our endearments to provide Aunt Auma disability status and spare her the agony. The rest of us could jog. But not even name dropping could convince them that we were who we said we were. We just looked too much like ordinary citizens to claim any closeness to such a big name.

The realisation only hit the security when Aunt Auma was led to the front row and the rest of us sprinkled among Kenya’s ranking public figures.

Don’t Shuffle Around

Talk about US values and Kenyans resilience. I was accommodated in the VIP section on condition that I did not move around to take pictures. I am now “a dignitary and VIPs don’t shuffle around the sitting area,” the embassy staff admonished. My elevated important status, denying me of my normal rights, was to remain so until after the President’s speech. Hussein weighted in: “This is family. You are now family. Here keep it that way. Keep your press for after this.”

As he spoke, I glanced to my left and saw opposition leader Raila Odinga two seats away from me. I nearly fell over fumbling for my mobile phone to take a number. Then my eyes caught other prominent opposition leaders Moses Wetangula seated next to Kalonzo Musyoka and Martha Karua. My space was getting too important as the Chief Justice, the deputy president, the president … people whose perfume choice I would never discern, wafted close by sitting importantly among us.

The young Dr Auma Obama – named after her Aunty who slowed us down – was MC for her brother. She spoke about the old beat up Volkswagen beetle with which she once drove her brother to the airport. How different from the White House limousines, she remarked. The family has nicknamed Obama’s official vehicle ‘The Beast’. Auma the MC started the running Kasarani musical game again. Hussein whispered Tracy Chapman’s Ticket song. As Obama waved goodbye at the end of his speech it was my turn to contribute to our game. Sonia Spence’s Leaving on a Jet Plane, I offered as the Commander In Chief boarded Air Force 1 for his next stop, in Ethiopia that same day.

Yes, indeed, the father of Opiyo, US President Barrack Obama, had brought us far, all the way from Nyanza to the very heart and throb of power.