To secure an audience with the Obama family matriarch at her farmhouse in western Kenya, you are told to pay respects at the local seat of power. This is a run-down government building where the district commissioner, a scowling man in a black suit, receives you without warmth.
You’ve come to see Sarah Onyango, you explain, the woman referred to as “Granny” by the president of the United States. You are coming with the blessing of the president’s half brother Malik Obama, you quickly add.
District Commissioner Boaz Cherutich, who controls the woman’s 24-hour security detail, dismisses you brusquely, saying: With the family’s permission, you don’t need mine. Go.
Down pitted dirt roads, behind a metal gate, you find policemen playing cards in the big front yard of the family compound where the president’s father is buried. Grim faced, they turn you away without explanation.
John the Fixer, who has arranged many such visits, doesn’t quite understand the problem, but the day is young, and he will make calls. “They have to consult widely,” he says.
Security has been tightened, he explains, since President Obama sent a team to kill Osama bin Laden, prompting vows of revenge. Kenya has been hit before, most calamitously when Al Qaeda blew up the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998.
“We used to love this place. You could walk in and out and see the grandmother,” he says. “She is a very social woman, but access to her has been restricted.”
Malik Obama is nearby, and he’s sure to straighten things out. He’s having a Coke on the patio of the area’s best hotel, the Mwisho Mwisho, whose name, “end end” in Swahili, reflects its reputation among tour guides as a refuge of last resort.
In Barack Obama’s memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” Malik is portrayed as a hard drinker with a magical laugh who converts to Islam, swears off liquor and serves as best man at his half brother’s wedding.
Now 53, Malik lives in a house beside their step-grandmother’s and calls himself the president of this remote, long-neglected village an hour and a half’s drive from the nearest big city. He doesn’t like to talk about how many wives he has — sometimes he says two, sometimes three — perhaps because his latest marriage, to a teenager, brought some unwelcome press.
This year, the Internal Revenue Service granted tax-deductible status to his charity, the Barack H. Obama Foundation, though a Virginia-based watchdog group, the National Legal and Policy Center, alleges he committed mail fraud by falsely claiming that status for years. His explanation: The process took longer than he expected.
He is planning to run for office, maybe parliament. He wants better roads, better schools, better government. For his half brother’s visit as an Illinois senator in 2006, the Kenyan government graded the dirt road to the family farmhouse, and around the time he won the U.S. presidency in 2008, the family got electricity. The area was declared a national heritage site, with promises of a cultural center, library and museum, but little has been done.
“We don’t have the best leaders,” Malik says. “If we fix up the roads, if we put in water and electricity, then it will be a great place. At the end of the day, I’m hoping we have a McDonald’s here.”
Despite the euphoria here attending Barack Obama’s election, tangible things haven’t changed much for most people. Few have running water, and most eke out a living on farms or in roadside shops. In the tumbledown concrete kiosks flanking the dirt road that runs through the main business district, seamstresses sew blouses for the equivalent of a dollar or two a day.
Tourists and journalists will come through, but they “spend a few short hours, and then they leave,” Malik says. “They just ask questions. They wear me out with these questions, and then they don’t spend any money.”
Why doesn’t somebody invest in a fruit juice factory that would employ some of the local jobless? Why doesn’t someone offer to build a few new classrooms? Why doesn’t the government of Kenya do something? “The misallocation of funds is really pathetic,” he says.
Kenyans experience a maddening inability to get answers to basic questions, such as who bears responsibility for a road that goes unbuilt, or where a bureaucrat is getting his orders. In this country of legendary corruption, then-Sen. Barack Obama caused a stir in 2006 when he arrived and denounced it. Years earlier, his stubbornly idealistic father, a civil servant, had done the same, and his frustration with the system helped ruin him.
Malik Obama, a man of many affairs, must run now. He announces that John the Fixer did not make it clear that you wanted to see Mama Sarah. John the Fixer vigorously disputes this. Still, Malik says, you have my blessing to visit the farmhouse. He doesn’t understand why the guards won’t permit entrance.
His cellphone to his ear, John the Fixer, whose real name is John Ochieng, a 28-year-old Kenyan journalist, keeps calling the house without success.
“I get the feeling there is somebody somewhere who is trying to frustrate this,” he says. “There are security arrangements which are not clear to anybody. This is one of the problems we have in Kenya. Nobody wants to take responsibility for anything.”
With millions fascinated by the American president and his heritage, John the Fixer believes the whole area, if it were built to attract and keep tourists, could transform lives here radically. “The government of Kenya is sitting on a gold mine and doing nothing about it,” he says. “There’s a disconnect somewhere.”
That disconnect is most poignantly obvious at the nearby Senator Barack Obama Primary School, the largest of the area’s eight primary schools, built in the 1940s but given its current name after Obama’s 2006 visit.
The school has a rusted corrugated-metal roof. Windows, lacking glass, are just square sockets in the walls. Most of its 710 students are without shoes, and some, without desks, do their lessons on the pitted concrete floor. Water tanks were donated recently, but the school can’t afford to give the kids lunch.
Headmaster Manasseh Oyucho sits in an office so cramped that he has to angle sideways to get to his desk. Outside, a power pole has been slanting out of the ground for three years, but the government never bothered to hook the line to the school.
He says the land for the school was donated by Hussein Onyango Obama, the American president’s grandfather, and that Malik was educated here.
“We expected some development,” Oyucho says. “Expected a lot. And especially when he became president, we expected too much.”
Because of the school’s association with the Obamas, he says, people mistakenly think it receives donations from America. That is why the government passes over his school even in the allocation of regular development funds, he says.
Like Malik Obama, he has developed a certain weariness with curious tourists and journalists. “Nobody wants to help this school. We just answer questions and questions,” he says. “In fact, it has become like a punishment to us.”
John the Fixer is making calls ever more frantically. His sources at the house tell him that Malik is furious, that he has been shouting at the guards to let the visitors in to see his grandmother.
“She isn’t happy. She’s told us that before. The security and surveillance are too much,” says John the Fixer. Getting in today will be impossible, he says in a tone near despair. “This has never happened before.” His theory is that some power struggle is underway.
Now Malik is on the phone, sounding pained. He says he can’t force the guards to open the gate, that the district commissioner has ordered them not to.
“That’s what’s going on. It seems like that is a government place, and I don’t have a say,” he says. “I just found out today everything has to go through the district commissioner. You can report that too.”
Is the commissioner resentful, perhaps, of his profile and outspokenness in the community? Yes, he says. “They’re trying to keep me down.”
He apologizes for all the frustration, but nothing can be done. Come another day, maybe, with more careful arrangements.