Kogelo village that rode on back of Obama name returns to old rusty self

Kogelo center in Siaya county on March 29, 2021.[Collins Oduor,Standard]

It was once a tiny little known village at the heart of Siaya County.

It then burst into the limelight after a US Senator said this was his home village.

A 29-kilometre tarmac road then snaked its way through the village from Ndori to Ngíya.

Electricity connection followed, and then piped water, then came a police station.

It was a dream come true for the residents.

Tourists thronged the area, and hospitality sector players were reaping big.

Business was booming and they rushed to build hotels to meet the demand.

And a decade later, Kogelo village, the home village of former US President Barrack Obama is back to slumber, with investors counting their losses.

It is gloomy.

Nyang'oma market, where Obama’s grandmother, Mama Sarah honed her skills is once again dusty. 

In 2017, Nicholas Rajula built up a hotel in the area. It was good business and money was flowing. 

When Saturday Standard caught up with him at the facility earlier this week, he was renovating hotel rooms which he has turned into rental houses.

He hopes to attract tenants before end of the month. 

Decline in business

“The hotel has not been operational for  two years.

"The number of guests went down when the Obama presidency ended, and that is why I want to turn the rooms into rental houses,” he said.

In 2005, Rajula was part of the delegation Obama invited to the US.

“Obama was tracing his roots, and he invited the family.

"It was an honour to be part of the delegation,” said Rajula.

It was during the visit that Obama told them that he wanted to visit his father’s grave and wanted the family to help with planning the visit.

Few visits were organised, which saw Mama Sarah and other family members tour the US.

Obama followed with a visit to Kenya in August 2006, and subsequently disclosed his family roots in Kenya.

According to Rajula, it was during this period that the he got the idea to start a hotel business.

“There was a lot of interest, and people thought Obama would give them handouts, which was not the case. 

"We had many requests, ranging from development to economic empowerment. He said he could not intervene due to the strict US laws,” added Rajula.

Few months later, Rajula bought a piece of land, and put up his hotel called White House.

And when Obama won the presidency in 2008, the number of guests increased.

Rajula’s hotel attracted many guests. 

He sought help from the Tourism Finance Corporation, and received a loan of Sh23 million which he used to expand his hotel.

To open up the dusty village, the government built the 29 kilometre road from Ndori to Ngíya, passing through Kogelo.

More investments

Electricity and piped water was connected, and this opened up the area to more investments.

Further, both local and international non-governmental organisations geared towards economic empowerment, and health programmes were established in the area.

Nyang'oma Primary and Secondary Schools were renamed Senator Barrack Obama Primary and Secondary Schools.

But in 2018, about two years after Obama left office, things started going south. 

“There were no more tourists, and the locals who thronged this area disappeared.

"Businesses started to suffer, and some even closed down,” said Rajula.

His hotel, which could host 60 guests was the worst hit. Two years later, it closed doors due to lack of business.

There is little activity at Obama Kogelo Cultural Centre where tourists had their first stop.

Paintings of Obama, his family portraits, the beads, traditional Luo attire, tools and weapons, which dotted the centre are not there

The 90-acre piece of land which had been set aside for the construction of Barrack Obama University has no development.

Nyang'oma market which was a hive of activity is empty and lonely.

Most of the traders relocated to other areas due to poor business. 

Manas Oyucho, the secretary of Obama Kogelo Cultural Centre admits that activities at the centre have subsided.

“This place was meant to showcase the Luo culture and exhibit the aspects of our culture through food and clothing, but it is dead,” said Oyucho.

Henry Odera, the vice chair of SOWO says the organisation is no longer recruiting beneficiaries due to inadequate finances.

Odera noted that when Obama was president, they used to receive many well-wishers who volunteered to sponsor poor children.

But this is no longer the case and currently, their main source of income is liquid soap that they manufacture. 

“We also run a savings and cooperative society, where members save and receive loans to finance their businesses,” said Odera.

The organisation can only support the 82 students in secondary schools and another 240 in primary schools.

Vitalis Awandu, the chair of Kogelo Development and Cultural Foundation admits that the village did not achieve its goals.

“When Obama became senator, there was a lot of hope. We wanted to have a cultural centre, linked to the university, and a number of support programs to sustain the projects. But as a community, we failed,” he said. 

Seek for funds

Awandu however says there are plans to approach US President Joe Biden, who they hope will come to their rescue. 

“When Donald Trump took over, a number of international organisations which had expressed interest in investing in this area changed their minds,” said Awandu.

Awandu hopes that since Obama is now a private citizen, he will help them look for funds to improve living conditions in the area.

During the burial of Mama Sarah in March, Siaya Governor Cornel Rasanga said that the county government would gazette her home as a heritage site, and also support some of the programmes that the community had started.

“I will be engaging the Obama family, and the Kogelo community, and I want us to join hands and complete the work together,” said Rasanga.

And as the Kogelo community goes back to the drawing board, all is not lost.

“As a community, we are partly to blame.

"This thing was too big for us to handle, and due to our personal differences and conflicts, many dreams were not realised, but we are hoping we will get a second chance,” said Rajula.

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