Kenya's tourism planners have for some time been preparing for a slew of Obama-obsessed travelers to touch down in cities such as Kisumu, on the northeastern shore of Lake Victoria. Apparently, there's been a surge of interest in this region from visitors hoping to touch base with the American president's African roots. It wasn't too far from Kisumu, in the tiny village of Nyangoma-Kogelo, that Obama's Kenyan father, Hussein, once herded goats -- that, of course, was before heading to the U.S. to study economics and meet Barack's mother. Obama Senior died in 1982, but the president's step-grandmother, Sarah Obama, still lives in her tin-roof bungalow in Kogelo, which Barack visited during his very brief Kenyan tour in 2006. He met with Mama Sarah but was unable to speak to her because she didn't know a word of English -- perhaps emblematic of the great distance traveled by African Americans. Meanwhile, many of Barack's "relatives" in Kogelo remain impoverished and socially immobile.
Nevertheless, Luoland locals are wildly obsessed with Obama's rise as the leader of the free world. A brand of beer produced here celebrates their hero -- it was originally called Senator but is commonly known as Obama -- and even the local school has been renamed in Obama's honor. If you want to get locals excited, simply mention Barack Obama, and you'll get a positive reaction -- just looking slightly American these days will be cause for onlookers to break into celebration, and the typical casual, heartfelt greeting you're most likely to get from strangers in the street will not be "Hello," but a cheerful "Obama!" -- or perhaps, "Obama?"
By all accounts many Luo are expecting nothing short of miracles from the man -- he is Africa's new hope, with songs written in his honor and a public holiday declared to celebrate his electoral victory. Rumor has it that soon after the election, hundreds of Luo arrived at the airport demanding that they immediately be taken to America -- the land where their brother is president -- despite the fact that most Kenyans can expect to wait years before being granted American tourist visas. Following Obama's victory, in fact, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi shut up shop rather than face the onslaught of demands from people wanting to emigrate to their new homeland. And while officials in Kogelo have proposed setting up an Obama Cultural Home -- with a museum, gallery, library, and leadership center -- in an ironic twist on democracy, the Kenyan government has placed an embargo on members of Obama's extended family, preventing them from freely talking to the media.
It's certain that life in the tiny village of Kogelo will never be the same. Roads leading there have been graded, and the Kenya Power and Lighting Company has hooked the once-sleepy village to the national power grid. Land value in Kogelo has skyrocketed following speculation among investors planning new hotels for the flood of tourists envisaged to hop aboard the Presidential Heritage Tourism Circuit; at press time, tour operators had begun rolling out "Obama Package" tours, but these tend to include only a brief, fairly aimless stop in tiny Kogelo.
A Hole in My Head, Please, Doctor
Kenya's second-largest tribal group (after the Kikuyu, who are most prevalent in the Central Highlands), the Luo have stood out in Africa as one of the few tribes that have historically not included ritual circumcision as one of the initiation practices marking the transition from childhood to adulthood. Before breathing a sigh of collective relief on their behalf, it's worth knowing that, instead of circumcision, young men (boys, really) were traditionally subjected to the removal of six teeth from the lower jaw -- without anesthetic. As in the case of tribes practicing circumcision, during this horrendous procedure, the initiate was not permitted to show even the slightest inkling of pain. Mercifully, the ceremony is no longer common practice.
The Kisii (or Gusii) are another tribe found in Western Kenya whose people have long been renowned sculptors, working principally in soapstone. Their sensitive use of their fine-boned hands meant that, for centuries, traditional Kisii medicine men practiced a form of brain surgery using primitive tools and -- you guessed it -- no anesthetic. Apparently, these traditional healers tapped a small hole in the skull with much the same precision as modern surgeons. It's anyone's guess, however, what they got up to once the hole had been drilled.