SIAYA, Kenya — The remote village of Nyangoma-KogeloIt, where President Barack Hussein Obama’s father grew up, is no longer bustling and busy as when the 44th President of the United States was in the limelight.
From 2004 — when Obama first won his United States Senate seat — hundreds of local and foreign visitors streamed to the modest hometown of his father’s birthplace.
That stardust settled deeper on the village when Obama visited in August 2006, as rumors swirled that he was seeking to be on the Democratic Party’s ticket for the 2008 presidential election.
What had been a trickle of interest became a flood of high-end SUVs and tourist buses desperate to glimpse the African roots of the man who would make history as the United States’ first black president.
For security reasons, the Kenyan police cordoned off the home of Mama Sarah Obama, who died at age 99 earlier this year.
Local investors flocked to the village, dizzy on the chance to cash in on the gold rush of Obamamania sweeping around the world.
Barack Obama Sr. was every bit as big a man in the village as his son was on the global stage. He donated land for both the village’s schools and named them after his son.
“Obama’s 2006 visit led to Kogelo’s transformation, and things got even better when he became president,” Johannes Oduor, a village resident, told Zenger.
And as Obama was swept to power in the White House, change started to flow through the tiny village where the last great infrastructure project had been a bridge built in 1930. It got its first electrical grid and even a police box to cope with the new tourists.
But now — five years after Obama left the White House — the once-bustling, busy village, as sophisticated as squeezing a buck from a tourist as any modern city, is back to its old sleepy days.
The expensive 4X4s and celeb-safari vans full of curious tourists are no more, replaced by the few personal cars and trucks ferrying farm produce to the local market.
The now-deserted Nyangoma market, which acted as the epicenter of the famous village, shows how fortunes have dramatically changed after Obama’s exit from the world stage.
Bernard Wendo, a 42-year-old taxi operator at Nyangoma market, said the hype, fame, and international focus on the village vanished after Obama left office, just at it had appeared 16 years ago.
“Initially, this village would be full of foreign dignitaries, government officials, students, tourists, journalists, and researchers, but that is no longer the case,” he told Zenger.
A Kogelo resident, Humphrey Kosiele, said the community’s gains during Obama’s era are fast waning due to a lack of foreign visitors.
“We are back to where we were before the fame,” he told Zenger.
For nine years, Kosiele ran a successful grocery store at Nyangoma market, but he shut down his business in 2017 due to what he describes as a “disappointing business environment.”
“After Obama left office, things turned gloomy. Visitors vanished, and that is how most businesses died, including mine.”
Dennis Weloba, 35, a barber at Nyangoma center, is among the few whose businesses are still operational but are struggling.
Weloba says he would make $10 a day tending to throngs of visitors during the Obama era but struggles to make $2 today.
“Life was good back then, but now we are surviving by the grace of God,” he told Zenger.
The taxi business, which visitors relied on to make their way around the village, flourished during Obama’s time. However, there are no longer taxi ranks in the town.
Bicycles and motorcycle taxis, commonly known as bodabodas, are the main mode of transport for the majority of the locals.
Andrew Jumba, 56, was forced to sell off his taxi after things went south.
“I had to sell the car so that I could repay a loan which was overdue, and the bank was on my neck,” he told Zenger.
“When tourists were coming, money was in plenty, and servicing my loan was no problem, but life became hard when they disappeared.”
Many of his fellow taxi operators sold their vehicles or relocated to the nearby Siaya and Bondo towns.
Bernard Omondi started a small shop selling agriculture and veterinary products to people who bought farms in and around the village, anticipating great fortunes.
After Obama’s retirement, he says, people’s “purchasing power” drastically reduced, forcing most businesses to shut down.
“Farmers had a big market for their produce, but with hotels closing and people moving to nearby towns, many abandoned their farms,” he told Zenger.
Investors in the hospitality sector who set up top facilities to cater to Nyangoma-Kogelo’s high-profile visitors also count their losses.
“The hotel industry was the most vibrant sector in this village,” Nicholas Rajula, the owner of Kogelo Village Resort, told Zenger.
The resort attracted hundreds of visitors in its heyday, but it is a shell of its former self today, almost deserted.
“We relied on foreign visitors and tourists, and when they stopped coming, I had to look for other options. I have turned a section of the hotel into residential homes.”
The only operational facility — albeit partially — is the Barack Obama Hotel, owned by Malik Obama, Barack’s half-brother, most remembered for backing Donald J. Trump for the presidency in 2017.
But with Obama’s exit, Nyangoma-Kogelo has lost more than personal businesses. Hundreds of poor folk who benefited from myriads of charities set up in Obama’s honor gradually faded after his presidency.
After Obama left the White House, many educational foundations scaled down their operations as donors became scarce.
Some students who entirely relied on education sponsorships from the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation dropped out of school after it ceased operations.
After Mama Sarah Obama’s death in March 2021, a vocational training center she helped set up to train orphans in artisan courses closed down due to a lack of resources.
Marsat Onyango, who oversees operations and administration at the foundation, said that a reduction in the number of donors affected the continuity of most projects initiated during Obama’s time.
“The scholarship program was the most affected with diminished funding, forcing us to reduce the number of students receiving support,” she told Zenger.
“However, we are working both locally and internationally to seek new and more partnerships to help us keep hope alive in this community.”
But even in the village’s changed circumstances, some positive work can still be seen.
Obama’s half-sister, Auma Obama, is still engaged in education, personality development, and sustainable economic development projects through her foundation of the same name.
She said plans are underway to kickstart the construction of Barack Obama University on a 90-acre piece of land earmarked in Kogelo.
“Mobilization of funds is on, and it is our hope and prayer that this project will sail through,” Jacob Wakoli, the infrastructure and projects coordinator at the foundation, told Zenger.
“The Barack Obama University will be a landmark project for us. It will lift education standards in the community and also spur economic growth in this area.”
In July 2018, Obama traveled to Kenya to promote the opening of a sports and training center sponsored by Auma’s foundation.
However, community leaders worry that Obama’s legacy to Nyangoma-Kogelo is wasting away and are considering taking over his family’s projects.
“We hope that we can salvage the situation and save the projects from dying,” Willys Ochiel, one of the community leaders, told Zenger.
“We believe that Obama will one day come for another visit, and we do not want him to be disappointed by our laxity.”
Hesbon Ochieng, 74, a community leader, says their tiny village would have struggled to access necessities were it not for the Obama connection.
“Our community has running tap water, electricity, good schools, a health center, and good roads, all which came under his name,” he told Zenger.
Ochieng said the community leaders also plan to revive the Obama Kogelo cultural center to preserve the village’s history.
“Future generations must know that it was Obama who gave this village global recognition, and we can only do that by preserving his legacy and the good deeds his name brought to this community.”
Edited by Kipchumba Some and Anindita Ghosh
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