Obama’s father is from Kenya, from a place in the West of the country called Kogelo. The area is dominated by Luo culture.
But Obama himself was born in the US, obviously.
Otherwise he couldn’t have become their president. Therefore many people don’t understand why the country makes such a fuss about Obama’s visit. And particularly people from Kogelo and the surrounding county are not being understood or even ridiculed for welcoming “their returning son”.
After all, he is not their son.
He is American, and apart from a few visits has nothing to do with Kogelo, right?
At least for Kenyans, especially Luos.
There is a complex cultural structure underlying this issue.
The role of men in the community
In Luo culture, men often remain in the homes while woman leave when married. Men mean strength and security for the whole extended family. Everyone has a role in this tight relationship network of family and clan members.
This sounds strange to us. In the global North, the individual and their success is more important while in Kenya, values are derived from the community. None of the systems can be judged “better” or “worse”. Both of them function, with advantages and disadvantages.
Changing cultural rules
Nowadays, people are not entirely staying on the countryside and in the value system of the community anymore. Many live in Nairobi, where the rural rules don’t apply so much. But it is very common that they go home regularly and try to balance things. Some rules can be bent with the consent of everyone, or they can be changed into some equivalent procedures.
This also applies for people who are abroad and who don’t have the chance to take the next bus going to their rural home. What is important is the deep identification with the land itself.
The identification with land
In Luo culture, especially boys belong to the father. If something happens, they have the right and the duty to appear and demand help and support, including a piece of land. If a boy is left to grow up with his mum or maternal grandparents, he won’t be able to attain land from them, which is the resource for his future life and even the place where he will be buried.
People will therefore accept homecoming sons in cases like funerals. Nobody will be utterly surprised if a son that nobody knew of suddenly appears.
You come from where your father comes from. Otherwise you can even be seen as an orphan who doesn’t know his home and doesn’t have direction.
Being raised in a luo community
That is a deeply rooted cultural knowledge. It is given through society and while growing up, children learn where they come from, and fatherless children or those away from their father’s place can even be mocked.
Going back to the roots therefore implies respect. As a Luo, and as a Kenyan in general, you are not successful for yourself. You will be the pride of an entire location. The results of the final exams of high school are announced and celebrated publicly by an entire village. And it is this village that comes together to raise funds in order to send “their son” or “their daughter” to university.
If Obama doesn’t “come home” to his father’s place, it’s almost like he disowns the people there, he doesn’t value and respect them. When he identified with the people in Kogelo in his inauguration speech, he made them proud. They don’t just call them their son, to them, he is.
A little story about relatives
When I was walking with Antony through his village for the first time, I met about six men who introduced themselves as his father and even more women who said he was their son. I got confused, but by now I myself am incorporated in a wide net of uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers and even co-wives! My decisions and actions not only affect myself, but they will always mean something and be interpreted by Antony’s relatives.
Obama is in a similar situation. And he is not the only one. Divock Origi, Belgium born footballer, proudly refers to his Luo roots. And Ali Mazrui, Kenyan lecturer in the US, insisted on his body being buried in Kenya.