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Presidential Ancestral Home Draws Americans to Kenya


American tourists are lining up in noticeable numbers to take the Kenya Presidential Heritage Safari -- an ambitious travel agency’s tour of President-Elect Barack Obama’s ancestral homeland. The idea of supplementing a popular 11-day Kenyan game park excursion with a vicarious day-trip jaunt to the Lake Victoria village of Nyang’oma Kogelo, where Mr. Obama’s father was raised, is the brainchild of South African-born travel agent Kenneth Hieber.Hieber founded the New York bureau 2 Afrika 14 years ago.He says that Kogelo, near the western city of Kisumu,is no longer a sleepy fishing village, and the popular side-trip could open up a new dimension in Kenyan – US relations.

“People who have come back, that I’ve already sent across to Kogelo, have been met with such warmth and such grace and such charm that it’s almost been more of an impact than the actual safari – and that is saying a lot because taking American travelers and putting them into the African bush-veldt in the middle of nowhere, with the enormity of the animal kingdom, giving them something else to hold onto now, which is the heritage of the president-elect, is just such an added highlight that it really is touching people in a very positive way,” he said.

The tourism climate is improving slowly since a year ago, when Kenya’s hotly contested presidential election deteriorated into widespread ethnic violence that was not resolved until last March. After followers of Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) challenger Raila Odinga accepted a unity government under incumbent President Mwai Kibaki with Odinga in place as Prime Minister, an economic recovery effort has been underway.During the year, Kenyans have watched with great pride and enthusiasm as the American-born son of Kogelo’s Barack Obama, Sr. defeated a field of US presidential candidates and ascended to the White House.Kenneth Hieber says pride in Mr. Obama, Jr.’s political success has kindled a desire by American tourists bound for Africa, who want to experience the homestead that gave rise to their new president.

“It was very vulnerable a year ago, and people shied away and tended to steer more toward Tanzania. Now, of course, that matters have settled dramatically in Kenya, and since there is an ancestry of the president-elect of the United States that stretches back to Kogelo, Kenya is suddenly full face on the map, and everybody is clamoring to get onto those programs,” he says.

He says that the Obama celebrity has changed the small-scale nature of tourism in Western Kenya dramatically.

“The local people of Kogelo are anticipating flocks of people coming into the area.I don’t for a moment think that people will go just to Kisumu and Kogelo based on the ancestry of the president-elect.But I certainly think people will add this as a tag-on to any particular safari that they may be doing in Kenya already.It’s easily accessible.It’s inexpensive…at the moment.And I do believe that people would feel the need to go to the ancestral homeland up on the banks of Lake Victoria before returning back from a safari,” he pointed out.

So far, says Hieber, the booming business has not spoiled local residents, who he says are kind and hospitable.Souvenirs are everywhere, however, and the Obama homestead, still occupied by the president-elect’s step grandmother, Sarah Obama (known as “Mama Sarah”), is the central attraction.

“One has got to get prior permission, for personal reasons, to enter the homestead.And I would think that she (Mama Sarah) would permit people coming in until she just got tired of it, or until the cash cow dried up,” Hieber counseled.

So far, Kenyan government has not kept up with demands for broadening regional infrastructure in the face of the tourist onslaught.Roads have not been widened to accommodate the increasing traffic, and Hieber says the Nairobi government is essentially taking a wait-and-see approach to the Obama phenomenon.

“Everything came as such a surprise to the Kenyans themselves, delighted as they are.But the government really hasn’t stepped up to the plate inasmuch as going ahead and creating a new infrastructure for much tourism coming in.I think they see it as a bit of a – dare I say it, 'pie-in-the-sky' movement.It will have a huge impact, and in time will just die off.So I think their focus is on other areas of the country as opposed to Kogelo right now,” he said.

For tourists hoping to interact with members of the extended Obama family that lives in Nyang’oma Kogelo, Hieber has some words of advice.

“I’m not sure.This would be hearsay if people said that they’ve actually met any of the relatives because everyone in the area is claiming now to be a relative of sort by marriage, by whatever.So everybody is jumping onto their claim of fame for the moment.I think that the residents of Kogelo are beyond themselves with excitement,” he notes.

Kenneth Hieber’s 2 Afrika tourist agency’s web site (http://www.2afrika.com) lists more than a dozen safari tours to Kenya and Tanzania.His Presidential Heritage Safari was conceived as an add-on to one of the many alternatives, and as long as the new US president remains popular, he is hopeful the add-on will play a useful role in promoting close ties between the Kenyan and American peoples.

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