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London Evening Standard

London Evening Standard

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Published by Loren Collins

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Published by: Loren Collins on Dec 22, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Barack Obama's broken promise to African village
David Cohen, Evening Standard25 Jul 2008It is an extraordinary sight to walk into a basic two-room house under a mango tree in rural eastAfrica and discover what is essentially a shrine to Barack Obama.The small brick house with no running water, a tin roof and roving chickens, goats and cows isowned by Sarah Obama, Barack's 86-year-old step-grandmother. Inside, the walls are decoratedwith a 2008 Obama election sticker, an old "Barack Obama for Senate" poster on which he haswritten "Mama Sarah Habai [how are you?]", a 2005 calendar that says "The Kenyan WonderBoy in the US", and more than a dozen family photos.But this bucolic scene in his father's village of Kogelo near the Equator in western Kenyaconceals a troubling reality that, until now, has never been spoken about. Barack Obama, theEvening Standard can reveal, after we went to the village earlier this month, has failed to honourthe pledges of assistance that he made to a school named in his honour when he visited here amidgreat fanfare two years ago.At that historic homecoming in August 2006 Obama was greeted as a hero with thousands liningthe dirt streets of Kogelo. He visited the Senator Obama Kogelo Secondary School built on landdonated by his paternal grandfather. After addressing the pupils, a third of whom are orphans,and dancing with them as they sang songs in his honour, he was shown a school with fourdilapidated classrooms that lacked even basic resources such as water, sanitation and electricity.He told the assembled press, local politicians (who included current Kenyan Prime MinisterRaila Odinga), and students: "Hopefully I can provide some assistance in the future to this schooland all that it can be." He then turned to the school's principal, Yuanita Obiero, and assured herand her teachers: "I know you are working very hard and struggling to bring up this school, but Ihave said I will assist the school and I will do so."Obiero says that although Obama did not explicitly use the word "financial" to qualify the natureof the assistance he was offering, "there was no doubt among us [teachers] that is what he meant.We interpreted his words as meaning he would help fund the school, either personally or byraising sponsors or both, in order to give our school desperately-needed modern facilities and afacelift". She added that 10 of the school's 144 pupils are Obama's relatives. Obiero was not theonly one to think that the US Senator from Illinois, who had recently acquired a $1.65 millionhouse in Chicago, would cough up. Obama's own grandmother Sarah confidently told reportersbefore his visit: "When he comes down here, he will change the face of the school and, believeme, our poverty in Kogelo will be a thing of the past."But the Evening Standard has heard that the promises he made to help the school as well as alocal orphanage appear to have been empty.
Seven months ago I travelled to Iowa to cover the start of the US primaries and was impressed byObama's charisma and integrity as he kicked off a thrilling battle with Hillary Clinton for theDemocratic Presidential nomination. Now, with only John McCain standing in the way of himmaking history as America's first black President, and amid the fanfare over his current worldtour, nowhere is this possibility more eagerly awaited than in Kogelo, the place where his fatherand grandfather are buried. Yet there is disappointment and hurt here, too. Granting us access tothe school and its records, Principal Obiero, 48, tells us: "Senator Obama has not honoured thepromises he gave me when we met in 2006 and in his earlier letter to the school. He has notgiven us even one shilling. But we still have hope."The letter Obiero refers to - dated 22 June 2005, signed by Obama and addressed to her - waswritten after his election to the US Senate in 2004 and hangs, framed, on the wall of her spartanoffice alongside photographs of Obama's visit to their school. It says: "I am honoured that youhave decided to rename the Kogelo School in my name.The land that the school is built on was donated by my grandparents and I am proud to carry onthe tradition of supporting the school."Obiero and her board of governors followed up his letter offering " support" with a bald, formalrequest for funds in the form of a nine-page proposal, a copy of which has been provided to theEvening Standard, laying out their ambitions for the school. In it they ask for 8.2 million Kenyanshillings (approximately £65,000) to upgrade the school. The money would be used, they say, tobring water to the school by sinking a borehole and building a water tank, erect a perimeter fence,complete the science laboratory and add muchneeded new classrooms, additional latrines, and aschool dining hall.Obiero recalls: "When the US Ambassador William Bellamy came to visit the school for theofficial renaming ceremony in February 2006, we gave him two copies of the proposal, one forthe Embassy and one to give to Senator Obama. But we have not heard anything from either of them since."Recently, she adds, she gave another copy of the proposal to Obama's Kenyan half-sister, AumaObama, who recently returned to Nairobi after living in England and working in children'sservices in Reading. Auma had been married to a British man but they are now divorced. "Aumaalso promised to pass it on to her brother," says Obiero.When we ask an Obama spokesperson in Kenya, who is also a family member, why no supporthas been forthcoming, he says: "We have no comment, the family are not doing any interviews atthis time."However, the school's senior teacher Dalmas Raloo, 41, who is often used as a translator forObama's grandmother who only speaks Luo, and is a friend of the family, says the family aremystified by what they are calling "Obama's lapse". "If you ask whether Obama's family think heshould give something to the village and to the school, the answer is 'yes, definitely'. But theyfeel it should come from him spontaneously. They don't want to ask him for it."
During Obama's visit to the school, he opened their half-finished science laboratory (built with£4,900 raised by the community) and wrote in the visitor's book: "Congratulations on the newlaboratory!" Today, the lab has been mothballed because they ran out of funds to equip it andbecause, critically, there is no running water. "We must pay the man with the donkey to fetch uswater from the river four kilometres away," says Obiero. The situation in the school mirrors thatof Kogelo village where the people live without water, electricity or access to proper healthcareand on average incomes of less than $1 a day. Yet they remain diehard fans of the man who hasput their rural community on the map and have even renamed the beer, called Senator, in hishonour: locals now order "an Obama".Obama's "lapse" is all the more difficult to understand given that he wrote in his 1995autobiography, Dreams from My Father, that Kogelo occupies a special place in his heart asbeing where he reconciled the diverse parts of himself - American and African, white mother andblack father. Obama wrote how he fell to his knees, sobbing, between the graves of his father andgrandfather at the family compound."When my tears were finally spent," he wrote, "I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circlefinally close. I realised that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellector obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America - the black life, thewhite life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I'd witnessed inChicago - all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away."Obama had visited Kogelo for the first time in the 1980s after attending Columbia University andthen again in 1991 to research his memoirs after graduating from Harvard Law School. He wouldlater become a civil rights lawyer and community organiser before going into politics and servingin the Illinois Senate in 1997 and then the US Senate in 2004.On those two voyages of personal discovery to Kogelo, he learned that his grandfather, HusseinOnyango Obama, who lived to 105 according to his gravestone (1870-1975), had been arespected elder and witchdoctor. But it was the road travelled by his estranged father, Barack Hussein Obama, that inspired and intrigued him. His father had transcended his roots as a goatherder to get a PhD at Harvard and work for the Kenyan government before falling from graceand dying in a car accident in 1982 at just 46.Barack's father, an economist, had split up with his white mother, Ann Dunham, from Kansas,when Barack was two. Apart from a month-long visit from his father when he was 10 years old,Obama would know him only through letters. As an adult he learned there was a darker side tohis father, reflecting in his book that he had apparently also been "a bitter drunk", "an abusivehusband", and "a defeated, lonely bureaucrat". But during this process of soul-searching he cameto know and adore the elderly woman who had raised his father, his step-grandmother SarahObama.We had been told that Sarah's house, which is adjacent to the school, was patrolled by two armedsecurity guards - who pays their wages is not clear - but when we visited the home, Sarah wasaway in Nairobi and we were shown in by one of Obama's young cousins.

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