Dreams from Obama's Grandmother

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Kate Holt / EPA

Sarah Anyango Obama, step-grandmother of Barack Obama, outside her home in Kogela, Kenya.

Several thousand miles and a world away, Barack Obama is campaigning to change American politics. But in the tiny farmstead where his father used to herd goats, his Kenyan relatives are praying for anything but more political upheaval. "We are spending sleepless nights praying that peace will prevail," says the 86-year-old woman whom the presidential contender calls Granny Sarah.

The Obamas' home has been spared the violence that has wracked Kenya since President Mwai Kibaki was sworn in for a controversial second term two months ago. More than 1,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands more uprooted, forced to return to their tribal homelands as waves of political violence brought decades of ethnic tension into the open.

Outside the Obama home, calves are grazing on the thick green grass that grows here in one of Kenya's most fertile regions. Plowed fields stand ready to be sown with maize. And scrawny chickens peck for grubs in the shade of mango trees. Inside, Granny Sarah's simple sitting room is plastered with black-and-white photographs of Obama Senior — the stepson she raised as her own — alongside Obama Junior's campaign posters.

Her eyes sparkle as she talks of her pride at his success and how he will make a fine President. "He is very loving and very hardworking and never had to be told what to do," she says, pointing out a photograph of a young, gangly Obama with a sack of vegetables over his shoulder during his first visit to Kenya. "Even though he is very learned, he's a very good listener and respects the opinions of others." A chicken wanders in through the open door and Granny Sarah hauls herself out of her chair to shoo it away.

As she settles back down, Granny Sarah, a non-practicing Muslim whose real name is Sarah Anyango Obama, says: "The senior Barack was a great friend of President Kibaki and also with Raila Odinga, so if Barry becomes President of America he will be well placed to help find peace." (Violence broke out in Kenya after Raila Odinga, the leader of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement, accused Kibaki of stealing the election. It opened up tribal fissures that many thought Kenya had long ago moved beyond. On Feb. 28, after on-again-off-again negotiations led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the two bitter rivals agreed to form a coalition government.) While there is simple pride at Obama's rise to prominence in the U.S., there has also been hope that his influence could go a long way toward calming the country's political turmoil. He has kept in regular touch with his relatives here for updates.

The Obamas live about an hour's drive — first on potholed asphalt roads then on a rutted dirt track into the village of Kogelo — from the city of Kisumu, the center of opposition support, standing on the shores of Lake Victoria. The population here is Luo, arch-rivals of President Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe. Angry mobs torched shops, bars and garages belonging to Kikuyu businessmen and forced their families to board buses for their tribal homelands in Central Kenya. In spite of the apparent political breakthrough in the capital Nairobi, the anger remains even if the mobs have been called off for now.

Every street corner in Kogelo hosts a political debate. It usually starts with a discussion of Kenya's crisis before moving on quickly to the chances of a Luo son moving into the White House. Maurice Kogode is the chairman of the grandly named Central Square Consultation Forum, which meets beneath a vast jacaranda tree. He says Obama's message of hope and change designed for voters in America also offers inspiration to young Kenyans. "Too many politicians here have an egocentric mind and they just won't give in," says Kogode. "They protect their own interests, not the majority."

In a country where politics has become a byword for corruption and tribal loyalty, Obama offers a different model, he explains. Instead of a leader who would use power to ensure his supporters get their turn at the trough, showering jobs, grants and contracts on family, he is seen by many as a President who would govern in the interests of all.

Not everyone sees it that way, though. A steady stream of would-be economic migrants has been arriving at Granny Sarah's door seeking an American visa. Almost every day she has to explain that the U.S. embassy in Nairobi is the only place that can make their American dream come true. (There's been a steady stream of journalists as well, so many that appointments now have to be made in advance before Granny Sarah will see them.) But even Granny Sarah admits to harboring secret hopes of a local windfall if Obama's momentum carries him all the way to America's highest office. "What we hope is that with his Kenyan and Africa roots we will see some of the fruits of his power, like electricity, water and a new road," she says simply in her native Luo language.