It is said that a prophet is never recognized in his hometown, but when it comes to former U.S. President Barack Obama, the opposite is true. Obama is famously known to trace his roots to the little village of Kogelo, near Kisumu City in Kenya, where his father Barack Obama Sr. was born. Even though this fact nearly cost Obama the U.S. presidency, it elevated him to near demi-god status in Kenya.

The former U.S. president enjoys such popularity here that dozens of babies born after 2008 have been named after him. A Kisumu City street, hotels and even a hairdo popular with women here all carry his name. In fact, everything associated with the former president is revered. Many boys born during his tenure as president are called Air Force One, and several girls born in Kisumu County during that period bear the names Michelle, Malia or Sasha Obama. (Interestingly, the name Obama connotes a large fish of the Nile Perch variety and is considered a delicacy in Kenya.)

Barak Obama and Sarah Obama in Kogelo in 1986 U.S. Embassy, Jakarta

Barak and Sarah Obama at her home in Kogelo in 1995. Image Courtesy of U.S. Embassy, Jakarta.

Obama visited Kogelo in 2006 to meet with his Kenyan family, but it wasn’t until he was elected president in 2008 that the tide began to turn for the little village and neighboring Kisumu City. Journalists flocked to the village to verify that, indeed, the most powerful man in the world hailed from there, and then tourists followed. Kogelo’s good fortune would rapidly spill over to the nearby Kisumu City.

When President Obama visited Kenya for the second time in July 2015 for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, the City of Kisumu erupted in celebrations that lasted for the duration of the president’s visit.

Even though he did not visit Kogelo or Kisumu, Obama’s arrival in Nairobi was greeted with a mock 21-gun salute by Kisumu residents, who also staged a welcome parade during which dozens of motorcycles bearing the American flag snaked around Kisumu City in tandem with the procession in Nairobi. A popular Kisumu comedian gave an abridged version of Obama’s speech, and city hawkers made a killing selling Obama-branded caps, umbrella, and T-shirts, among other things.

 

Kisumu City Reinvents Itself for the Future

The village of Nyang’oma Kogelo (also known as Kogelo), which lies some 60 kilometers (37 miles) west-northwest of Kisumu, is President Obama’s ancestral home and a gazetted National Heritage site. Local primary and secondary schools known as Senator Barack Obama are named in his honor and a life-size statue of President Obama has been erected in his Kenyan homestead, where a newly built stone house has replaced semi-permanent mud houses, and both Kenyan and American flags fly on the grounds.

A boy opening gate door at Senator Obama Kogelo Secondary School. Image by Morgan Hough.

Home to fewer than 5,000 residents, Kogelo has undergone a major transformation in the last eight years. Thousands of local and foreign tourists visit the village annually, but it is in neighboring Kisumu City — where anyone wanting to go to Kogelo must pass — that fortunes have irrevocably been changed.

Founded in 1901, Kisumu is Kenya’s third largest city after Nairobi and Mombasa, respectively. Although only 500,000 people live and work in Kisumu, the city experiences an influx of visitors during the summer months and public holidays when Kenyans return home.

As the principal city of Western Kenya, a region with a combined population of more than 10 million people, Kisumu City is a transport, commerce and conferencing hub for the region, serving Bondo County, Siaya, Kakamega and Kisii Counties. Courtesy of Lake Victoria and the Port of Kisumu, it is a strategic transit point for goods like sugar, molasses and beer (among other consumables) destined for Uganda and Tanzania. The Nairobi-Mombasa Railway line cuts through Kisumu, ferrying passengers and cargo.

Kisumu City

Kisumu City. CC: Mark Souther.

With the scenic Lake Victoria as a backdrop, the port city is also the gateway to the Western Kenya tourist circuit for visitors going to the historic Rusinga Island, Kakamega Forest, the crying stones of Kitmikai, and Kogelo, among other attractions.

Kisumu acquired city status at the turn of the millennium and, in recent years, has embarked on an ambitious mission to upgrade its road infrastructure, housing, water and sewage facilities to meet city standards. According to the city government’s official website, Kisumu was last upgraded more than 50 years ago.

In 2006, Kisumu became the world’s first UN-designated Millennium City, charging it to improve service delivery, create jobs, eradicate poverty and improve access to education and healthcare to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Four years later in 2010, the city embarked on an ambitious upgrading program.

Since then, the city’s access roads have been upgraded and its boundaries expanded. To pave the way for this expansion, some of the city’s informal settlements have been relocated, as has the old Kisumu Central Bus park. The first phase of improvements included the building of new access roads, and connecting water and electricity to the slums — which house about 60% of the city’s residents. A 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) state-of-the-art Nyamasaria Interchange build eases traffic leading into the city on the Nairobi-Kisumu highway, and plans are underway to upgrade four of the city’s major slums of Nyalenda, Kaloleni, Obunga, and Bandani.

According to Vincent Kodera (a city official in charge of housing), modern housing units will be built and road infrastructure improved in the coming years. The upmarket areas of Riat Hills, Milimani and others have also benefited, with new residential and commercial buildings being built, many of them by private investors. In the new city plan, a recreational park will be carved out of previously idle land, creating much-needed open space for residents.

Between 2008 and 2012, the first phase of the upgrading and expansion of Kisumu International Airport (Kenya’s third largest airport) was completed. Phase two of the project opened to international flights in June 2016, making it easier for people to fly in and out of the city for business or pleasure. Kisumu International Airport is one of the busiest in Kenya, with an annual turnover of approximately two million passengers.

This hasn’t come without challenges. Many people have been displaced and a number of small businesses — which, according to outgoing city planner Evelyn Otieno, were erected on road reserves — were demolished. This led to violent demonstrations across the city, with some of those affected lamenting loss of income and little or no compensation. Kisumu Mayor Jackton Ranguma is on record saying that the city upgrades were necessary for development.

Evelyn Otieno believes the demolitions could not have been avoided. She says demand for land is growing and the upgrade is attracting residents who previously shunned Kisumu to return to the city in droves, some of them as investors. Otieno agrees that Kisumu’s status as former U.S. President Obama’s hometown has rekindled interest in the city in a big way.

“Kisumu has been recognized by the World Bank for streamlining the issuance of construction permits. It now takes between 5-10 days for permits to be processed,” Otieno says. Additionally, a new e-trade business licensing system has made permits available online, making it easier and faster for people to do business.

In recent years, Kisumu has seen a construction boom in the commercial sector, with more hotels and conference facilities springing up to meet growing demand. Kisumu’s rapid growth is partly attributed to the devolution of power from the central government, which split the country into 47 counties, bringing governance closer to the people. The County Government of Kisumu, led by Governor Jack Ranguma, is now autonomous.

Imperial Hotel in Kisumu

Imperial Hotel in Kisumu. CC: Richard Portsmouth.

People working for the county government and those doing business in the city have created unprecedented demand for better housing, conference facilities and recreation options. Several mega malls have come up, some of them boasting flagship retailers like Nakumat, Tuskys and Naivas, Deacons, the popular Java Coffee House, Chicken Inn and KFC, previously exclusive to Nairobi.

 

Kisumu Revitalization Boon for Residents

For long-time Kisumu resident Roselinda Awino, Kisumu’s upgrade could not have come at a better time. As a resident of Kondele, an area with many informal settlements that was previously accessible only through narrow, dark lanes, she has lived in fear of rape, muggings and fire. She and other residents now enjoy wider, graded access roads and floodlights that bathe the entire neighborhood in light at night, discouraging muggers.

“Before the upgrade, no woman or child was safe at night, and when a fire broke out, homes burnt to the ground, rendering some homeless. Now the houses are more accessible. Firefighters can now put out fires easily,” she says.

With the upgrade, residents now have better access to clean, potable water and better sewage disposal, which has resulted in a drastic reduction in waterborne diseases. Traders also have a lot to celebrate because their places of business are not only cleaner but more accessible to customers. For commuters, better roads means that it now takes a shorter time to get to and from places.

Woman Selling Fruit in Kisumu

Woman with child selling fruit. CC: Novemberdelta.

“In the past, bicycles were the main mode of transport within the city. Now we have motorcycles and taxi cabs. We also enjoy free flow of traffic because, unlike bicycles, motorcycles and cars are much faster and roads are much better,” says resident Mike Odhiambo.

Christine Akinyi recently relocated to Kisumu from Nairobi and is very happy with the new city. “I live in a big house here, with water, internet and electricity. I pay less than $200 for the house. In Nairobi, a similar house would cost me four or five times over. I don’t have to worry about traffic congestion or bad roads and security,” she says, adding that shopping and dining options have also improved in recent years because every major retailer previously exclusive to Nairobi can now be found in Kisumu City.

Kisumu does not have a centralized entertainment district, but the city has seen the rise of several high-end shopping and dining destinations — including bars, restaurants and eateries — most of which can be found in the central business district.

But Kisumu is not a city without culture. The city is host to the Western Circuit Cultural Festival organized by the Lake Victoria Tourism Association, where visitors get a unique opportunity to sample local culture, heritage, music and food. The Kisumu Art and Culture Guild brings together performing artists, comedians and musicians, while Dala Fest is a highly explosive annual music extravaganza. The festival has been instrumental to the rise of music giants like Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, Susana Owiyo, Mercy Maira and others. The Lake City Comedy Night is a new addition to the growing repertoire of art in Kisumu City.

 

Lessons From A Sleepy Town Transformed

Compared to cities like Nairobi and even Mombasa, Kisumu has succeeded in city planning, use and management of public land. According to outgoing city planner Evelyn Otieno, deliberate and consistent action to repossess and reallocate public land in recent years has allowed the city to expand.

Interestingly, Kisumu seems to be going against the grain when it comes to embracing environmentally-friendly modes of transport. To ease traffic congestion, the city embarked on an ambitious plan to relocate its main bus parks, previously within the city center, to the outskirts. Kisumu County Government has also succeeded in driving bicycles and motorcycles out of the central business district. Outgoing city planner Evelyn Otieno explains that the rationale behind this is that bicycles clog the main roads and slow traffic within the city center, although they are still encouraged outside the central business district.

Kisumu Central Business District

Central Business District, Kisumu. CC: Richard Portsmouth.

To improve security, Kisumu City has embarked on a plan to decongest and open up areas previously inaccessible. It also lit up the city’s informal settlements, making it safer for residents to move freely after dark. The city has succeeded in improving service delivery through the automation of all government services, including business permits and licensing. By allowing private investors to operate within the port on Lake Victoria, Kisumu has been able to turn around the port’s losses and earn much-needed revenue.

Although it was its association with U.S. President Barack Obama that put Kisumu City back on the map, it is through partnerships with organizations like the World Bank, UN Habitat, Liquid Telecomms, and local investors, among others, that Kisumu has managed to turn itself around. And with strong local leadership and city planning, the city has managed to actualize its goals in record time.