Kenya's Slums Are Crazy for Obama

The people of Kibera say that they're America's 53rd state and Obama is their president.

Mar 12 2013, 10:43am

In case Donald Trump's butthurt whining about Barack Obama's birth certificate didn't alert you to the fact that America's 44th president has family links in Kenya, Barack Obama has family links in Kenya. He wasn't born there, like the bizarrely preoccupied birther movement would have you believe, but his father was, and he left an extended network of half brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and all the other titles that you'd usually associate with a family to share the Obama name.       

As far back as the late 90s, the Kenyan people started to celebrate Obama's political career (naming buildings after him, sticking his picture up everywhere) after he became a member of the Illinois Senate. He was then elected to the position of State Senator and, eventually, President. Reclaiming Obama as one of their own, the people of Kenya went batshit over the election results, nowhere more so than in Nairobi's Kibera slum – home to 60 percent of Nairobi's population – where residents proclaim Obama to be the area's president, name their children after him, cover their buildings and vehicles in pictures of his face and cover their bodies in any amount of the presidential merchandise available.

Vlad Sokhin, who we spoke to before about a group of people worshipping someone you might not expect them to, went out to Kenya in 2011 and photographed everything Obama he could find. I called him up for a chat about Kenya's Obama-mania.

VICE: So how prevalent is the "Obama-mania"? How deep has it penetrated Kenyan culture?
Vlad Sokhin: It's everywhere, but it's not like it's completely taken over, you know? Although, there are some places in Nairobi – like the Kibera slum, for example – where you see a lot more of it. People there name their shops after him and a lot of them name their kids after him.

So there are loads of little Barack Obamas walking around?
A lot of parents give their kids the middle name "Obama". I was with a fixer there and asked him to find me an Obama boy or an Obama girl and he was like, "What do you want? A boy or a girl? There are so many you can just take your pick." The mother I met had her son during the first Obama election campaign and she named him David Obama. She said, "It's a good thing to name your child in honour of Obama. You wouldn't call them Osama." And, weirdly, Osama Bin Laden was killed when I was there and everyone took to the streets to celebrate. It was crazy.

And there are schools named after him there now as well, right?
Yeah, when he was still a senator they changed the name of a school in honour of him. And in Kisumo town, they have a children's hospital named Obama, they have an Obama gate in the general hospital and they call their minibuses "Mr Obama" and "Mr President" and paint his image on the side.

Vlad with Barack Obama in front of a Kenyan jet.

What about the tourist photos with Obama? Is that a cardboard cut-out street photographers use, or something?
No, that's actually this special service a lot of the street photographers do where they take your photo in front of any tourist spot you like, then they Photoshop Obama in there next to you.

Wow, that is a special service. And what about the Obama school book? Are kids there being introduced to him as soon as they can read? 
Yeah, the primary schools teach this book called Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope, which is all about Obama and his Kenyan roots. Also, I visited a school while I was there, went into an art class and they were all drawing portraits of Obama. 

Obviously he has family links there, which must be inspiring and everything, but has it gone above that? Have people started to view him as a kind of leader?
Yeah, he's the first US president with roots in Kenya, so that's very inspirational for young people. But you're right – people in Kibera call it the 53rd state, even though there are only 50 states, and they say that Obama is the president of Kibera rather than Mwai Kibaki, the Kenyan president. But yeah, in a more general sense, Obama just appeals to and inspires the youth. There's a rapper called OctopiZZo who's pretty famous who raps about Obama.

Oh yeah, I read about him. Do you think that's a gimmick or is he genuinely passionate about Obama?
No, no, he is passionate. He raps about many other things, but he's definitely a huge fan of Barack Obama. All the young people from Kenya are Obama fans.

Yeah, it looks like it from all your photos of kids wearing Obama t-shirts and belt buckles and stuff.
Yeah, you can get all sorts of merchandise out there: bags, t-shirts, flags, babies' things. And you know they've introduced the "Obama Safari" for tourists as well?

Yeah, tell me about that.
It's basically five or six days climbing Mount Kenya, going to Victoria Lake and that kind of thing, and then on the last day you go to Obama's village and have, like, a 20 minute audience with Sarah Obama, his step-grandmother. It's more expensive than visiting Mount Kilimanjaro, which is in an entirely different country. But because of the whole Osama thing when I was there, they stepped up the security and it meant I couldn't meet Sarah Obama.  

Barack Obama's half brother, George Hussein Obama. George makes money by charging people to talk about Obama and have his photo taken.

That's a shame. But you met his half-brother George, didn't you?
Yeah, he's a really strange guy. I get the impression he's an alcoholic, and he's only met Obama once or twice, but he uses the name for his own ends. I gave him a call and asked if I could have a chat and take his picture, but he said, "My time is money – an hour is 200 bucks." I scheduled a meeting with him and told him that I never pay anyone to take their photo, and he was like, "OK, what if you pay me, like, 50 bucks?" I said I'd give him 20 instead, then took one photo and asked one question before he said, "That's enough. Pay me more if you want more."

So he's just using the name to hustle money for booze, basically?
Yeah. He called me the next day and sounded like he'd been drinking all night, and said, "Man, can you give me another 20 bucks and you can do whatever – you can take any amount of photos and ask as many questions as you want, I just really need the money." So he came up to my hotel and we took some photos, then we took a taxi to his slum and I got a picture of him holding a photo of his father, who's Obama's father as well.

Is George involved with the Obama safari at all?
No, not at all, he just does his own thing. He was telling me, "Oh, I have a son that nobody knows about, so if you give me $50,000 I'll send you the information and the photos. Don't publish it now, though – wait until the next election and you'll make lots of money." It was clearly a lie, I didn't have $50,000 and it's not like I would have paid him that anyway. Then he kept calling me every day I was there, but I didn't pick up the phone.

Visit Vlad's website to see more of his work.

Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamie_clifton

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George Hussein Obama, Barack's half brother, with a portrait of their father.

Puppets from the 'XYZ' tv show, where Obama is a main character.

A page from 'Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope', a book about Obama used to teach kids in Nairobi's schools.

Drawings of Obama from an art class in one of Nairobi's schools.

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