Blood flowed as election day dawned in Barack Obama's ancestral village in western Kenya. The presidential candidate's half brother, Malik, tied a bull to a tree, then hobbled it and asked me to hold the beast's head to the ground as he drew a machete across its jugular. "Hold this guy down now," said Malik, 50, eyeing the animal's horns as blood poured from its throat. "He could kill me." After five minutes, the blood flow began to slow, and the fight went out of the animal, which stopped kicking and lay still, breathing heavily. "O.K., it's over," said Malik. "Fine animal too."
Hours before polls opened in the U.S., the people of Kogelo were celebrating the ascension of one of their own to the most powerful office in the world. It's a miracle for the clan known as the Jor'Obama, or "People of Obama"--after Malik and Barack's grandfather--but it's murder on their animals. Meat is highly prized in a poor community like Kogelo, a pretty village with views of the green hills north of Lake Victoria. Cows and goats are the main measure of wealth here, and most villagers maintain a vegetarian diet. The past few days, however, have witnessed a comparative bloodbath: scores of chickens disappeared into a giant pot, whose contents will be served to all comers. Malik, inundated by relatives from across Kenya and the world, has been going through two goats a day; the morning of the election, he stepped things up a notch by serving two bulls. Scarcely had he dispatched the pair when he drove to the nearby market of Ngiya to buy two more for the next day.
The Obamas have descended on Kogelo to celebrate an event so improbable--so audacious, to use their American cousin's word--that, as Malik says, "it's beyond comprehension." The Jor'Obama have gone from barefoot subsistence farmers to the U.S. presidency in two generations. Many still live the life of their grandfather, growing maize, millet and sweet potatoes and tending cows, chickens, goats and ducks. As the first-born son of the first-born son, Malik is the clan head, and at night the men build a fire outside his hut, drink moonshine and talk.
In his book Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama wrote of his return to Kenya, "I began to imagine an unchanging rhythm of days, lived on firm soil where you could wake up each morning and know that all was as it had been yesterday, where you saw how the things that you used had been made and could recite the lives of those who had made them." And so it is. Among the gathering Obamas are cousins Olga and Sasha, whose father married a Russian; cousin John Kennedy, who changed his name when he moved to the nearby city of Kisumu; Malik's brother Sadiq, who has brought his daughter Shami from Britain; and uncles Patrick, Tom and Elly and all their sons and daughters from Kendu Bay, who brew the moonshine behind their huts on the southern shores of Lake Victoria. The Luo, the Obamas' tribe, have no word for cousin, so everyone is simply "brother," "father," "daughter."
The better I got to know the Obamas, the more astonished I became at the unlikeliness of Barack's ascension. This is the story of a grandfather whose stubborn will found a match in the austerity of Islam and drove his son to seek a scholarship abroad, which in turn led the young man to Hawaii, where he met and married Ann, a Christian, and had a son--who, at 47, will become the first black President of the U.S. There are so many unlikelihoods in his story that an Obama victory seemed like a fairy tale. As Election Day approached, I told Malik I was getting nervous for him. "Look, my father might have gotten a scholarship to someplace like Brazil, and none of this would have happened," he said. "My brother is not supposed to accomplish even half of what he has. It's meant to be impossible." And yet it happened, says Malik. "It makes you wonder. Is this some force at work, the dynamics of nature or life? Is it God? We divided the world after 9/11. And the world said no. And through my brother, we can all connect again."
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