To discover the source of the Nile, David Livingstone wandered Africa for more than a decade.
To find another mythical African stream, which runs all the way to the White House, took me about 10 minutes.
In order to find it — ‘it’ being (Mama) Sarah Hussein Obama’s house in Agelo-Kogelo, a village near the border with Uganda in western Kenya — I drifted into a cyber cafe in nearby Kisumu and told the cashier I was a Canadian writer searching for an interview.
“Would you know who I should talk to to arrange it — someone related to the family?” I asked, expecting a blank stare.
“Me!” said the cashier.
Gaining access to the grandmother of the possible future president of the United States shouldn’t be done through chance meetings in cafes, especially on a continent where white people have shown a tendency to wander aimlessly instead of asking the locals for directions.
Just ask Livingstone.
Naturally, then, I was suspicious.
“You?” I said. “You are Mama Obama’s grandson?”
“Yeah, I am from her area and I can take you to meet her,” said the man, who later told me his name was Zach Oriembe.
As we talked, I noticed he was disassembling a computer using a pair of scissors.
His plan, like his claimed relation, was vague. We would meet in two days. I would produce US$40 for a taxi ride to Alego-Kogelo.
Once there, he would act as translator and proof I was legit, though he never asked me who I worked for.
A few days later, we were speeding toward Alego-Kogelo in a taxi.
“There are foreign journalists going there everyday,” said Zach, proudly. “In fact, it would be news if a day goes by without a journalist going there. It has become a national park.”
Here I must reveal why I was in this car, and why Zach was proving quite interesting.
My quest to meet Mama Obama was not, to be frank, the same as many other Western journalists.
Most have journeyed to Alego-Kogelo to ask rather obvious questions — “How does it make you feel that your grandson might become the president of America?”
They then write safari-esque stories that flatter themselves as brave — they travelled deep into rural Africa! — while romanticizing Barack Obama’s relation to his grandmother in a strange, noble-savage meets American-dream sort of narrative.
Instead, I wanted to explore what’s driving all of this. Why are we so fascinated with Mama Obama anyway?
We left Kisumu, heading northwest, past the Equator, stopping in a market near the village to pick up a teenager named Daniel for unexplained reasons.
Why, I thought, has the media chosen this place to write flattering pilgrimage-journalism about Barack Obama and not to the jungles of Indonesia, where his step-father is from?
Why not the icy fiords of Norway where his mother originated?
Why not a lava flow in Hawaii, where he was conceived?
Barack Obama is half European but his image, it seems, is not.
Do we consider him African-American in the US presidential context because it is assumed his other, whiter half, has already been there, done that?
Is that why we’re obsessed with his grandma and correspondingly uninterested in Hillary Clinton and John McCain’s grannies?
I wanted to get Mama Obama’s take on this.
She’s been on the receiving end of the media interest in her … Africanism.
TV news crews from around the world have arrived unannounced at her home, sometimes in seven-truck convoys.
So here Zach, Daniel, the driver and myself were sitting in her house, waiting.
Framed black and white portraits of Obamas in stiff poses formed a silent but observant audience on the walls.
Nearby, colour pictures of Barack Obama, documenting each of his three visits to the village, had been hung.
There was also a signed US Senate campaign poster from 2003, when he ran, and a colourful calendar, circa 2005, with him smiling under the headline, “The Kenyan wonder boy in the US.”
It was the shrine to a grandson who is running to become president one would expect in a grandmother’s house.
Out walked Mama Obama, a deceptively young-looking, incredibly muscular woman of 76, wearing a red dress abloom with a yellow flower print and a headscarf, a nod to her Muslim faith.
We gingerly shook hands and she giggled when I said, “Shikamoo” (‘I kiss your feet’), the Swahili greeting for elders.
I opened my notepad. Question time. But it’s not that simple anymore. Mama Obama, through Zach, said she wasn’t comfortable talking to me without the family’s new spokesperson (he lives in the same village but wasn’t available).
Zach hadn’t mentioned this man. He clearly didn’t know about him until now. In fact, I quickly woke up to the fact Zach hadn’t made any arrangements with Mama Obama because he simply didn’t know how to contact her.
I looked at Daniel, sitting quietly. ‘He’s the only person in the room who knows this woman,’ I thought.
It was later agreed we could talk, though Zach soon proved unable to detach his opinions when translating my questions and Mama Obama’s answers. In absence of relaying her thoughts, he would sometimes boast, as if we were sitting by a campfire, “This house is where the stories begin.”
He did ask my main question, though — why Mama Obama thinks Westerners are so fascinated with her? I watched her reflect for a moment.
“The main reason journalists come is that they think he (Barack Obama) is a man without race,” she replied, through Zach. “But he has taken to show that he is from this house. The majority come to see if he is, indeed, from here.”
The more I pushed, though, the harder I banged against a cultural wall. A Luo elder like Mama Obama will not question the motives of a guest paying a visit, explained Zach. I gave up trying to ask more questions and just listened.
The conversation drifted into television reception. “There is poor transmission in this area,” said Zach, pointing to Mama Obama’s television.
Through her aerial, she can watch local channels that carry BBC, though she rarely can tune-in ones which carry American broadcasts like CNN, he said.
As he offered to return to fix her aerial, Zach could tell I was done and announced we would leave. Pictures were taken. Welcoming invitations to return were given.
We dropped Daniel off on the way out of Alego-Kogelo. Zach thrust some money into his hand.
As we drove back to Kisumu, I pondered what had happened. I had been fooled by a man but, in the end, still met the woman I had sought.
Mama Obama’s hospitality, it seems, has been exploited by journalists. But in the end she has helped her beloved grandson.
And us in the West? I’d say we’ve been sent up a mythical river by the media that, in the end, we want to exist.
Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.