Friends: Just as batting a ping pong ball around with a couple of Chinese was one of the highlights of my recent visit to China, running along with a Kenyan will be one of the more memorable moments of these travels.
My running mate and I were jogging along a narrow trail, racing to return to the clinic where I had left my bike before the increasingly dark skies unleashed a torrent. We were returning from a visit to the home where Barack Obama's grandmother lives and where his father was raised in the small village of Kogelo.
I don't know which I was more thrilled by, following in the graceful footsteps of this lithe, light-footed young Kenyan or having just paid homage to the home of Obama's father, a place that Obama had twice visited. I had memories of biking past Obama's home in Chicago. That urban environment couldn't have been more different than this isolated, undeveloped rural village.
There was no mistaking that I was in Africa as I biked along a secondary, lightly-traveled road and then a dirt road to Kogelo, past men sitting along the road hammering piles of rock into gravel and women walking with huge bundles on their heads and barefoot kids gleefully shouting out, "How are you?" The village of Kogelo was well off the main road I have been following around Lake Victoria, sixteen miles on a rough, pot-holed secondary road and than another five miles on a narrow dirt road, about twice as far as I anticipated, as everyone had been telling me it was 20 kilometers from the main road.
The village is so small it didn't even warrant a sign at the turn to it along the main highway, nor did it have a police post until a few years ago when bandits raided the home of Obama's grandmother. Now an officer is stationed outside the fence surrounding her property. I knew the turn to Kogelo came in the town of Luanda, eighteen miles beyond the large city of Kisumu. There were two paved roads intersecting the highway through Luanda. I stopped at the first and was told to continue on to the next paved road a little further on.
The road took me over two ridges, one with a steep ten per cent grade, but the way was generally downhill towards Lake Victoria. Kogelo is within five miles of the lake shore, something I was unaware of when I set out on this circuit. It turned out to be an unexpected bonus.
I'd gotten a late morning start out of Kisumu, as I had to put some time in on the Internet before departing. A city-wide power outage the night before delayed me from fulfilling my Internet duties. It was mid-afternoon when I made the turn to Kogelo. I expected it to take about an hour to ride what I thought was going to be 12 miles to Kogelo. I'd pay my respects and then return to the main highway well before dark. But when it became evident it was going to take me a couple of hours to reach Kogelo, I began scouting out possible places to pitch my tent when I headed back. But just like all of the Kenya I'd seen so far, it was too densely settled for wild-camping.
A cyclist I rode along with for a few miles gave me the good news that there were three guest houses in Kogelo. I began looking forward to spending the night in the village of Obama. Unfortunately, that information was as wrong as the distance to Kogelo and quite a few other things I'd been told about it. Not only were there no guest houses, there was no Obama museum or other Obama attractions, just the secondary school named in his honor.
When I finally came to the dirt road turn to Kogelo it was marked by a very weathered sign pointing towards "Senator Obama Secondary School." It gave a distance of five kilometers, more bad information. It was five miles. When I finally reached Kogelo, there was a sign at its lone crossroads to the Obama school, 400 meters down the road.
Before I headed to the school I was pounced upon by the town drunk. He informed me there were no guest houses in the village. That came as little surprise as all that Kogelo seemed to amount to was a small cluster of ramshackle shops on either side of the road. This was as forlorn and sorry-looking of a village as I'd seen. I told the guy I had a tent, and wondered if there might be a place to camp. He told me I could pitch it by his house, something I had no desire to do.
It was after five p.m. with just a couple hours of light left. The Obama school looked no more impressive than the town--a row of several rooms behind a large athletic grounds, including a soccer field. It was not a new school, as I had imagined it might be, but rather a run-down old school that had simply renamed itself.
There were several dozen boys jogging around the field and going through soccer drills, all wearing Obama school t-shirts. After taking a few pictures, including one with a pair of boys modeling the t-shirts, I returned to the town center to see if anyone might be selling Obama souvenirs. I had seen Obama t-shirts for sale in towns through Uganda and Tanzania, but there were none for sale here.
There was no reason to linger in this dusty, forsaken place. It was hard to imagine that Obama had made two visits to Kogelo, one when he was an unknown and then a second time as a Senator with his wife and two daughters. Though I didn't know where I would spend the night, I didn't care to spend it here. As I headed out of the village, the fenced compound of a clinic caught my eye. The cluster of buildings looked as if it might include housing for the staff. I pulled in to see if I could pitch my tent there. The woman I asked said she'd have to check with the supervisor.
A couple minutes later a thirty-year old woman came out and said it would be okay to camp there. Though no one lived there, it would be perfectly safe, as I would have a security guard to look after me. He was just arriving, a 60-year old man with a cane that was as bent and gnarly as he. With what looked like a storm brewing, the woman said it would be best if I set my tent up under the gazebo out front. As she showed it to me, the wind began to gust. She suggested it might be better if I set up my tent under the more sheltered porch. I was okay with that as well.
As I prepared to set up my tent, a young man came over and asked about my travels. He asked if I had seen the home of Obama's grandmother. He said he could take me there, as it wasn't far away. As we prepared to go, the woman in charge of the clinic came back and said they had a maternity ward with beds that weren't being used and that I would be welcome to stay there. I would have preferred to sleep in my much neglected tent, but sleeping on a mattress rather than on concrete was far more attractive, so I accepted her offer. There were four beds. She said they all had clean sheets.
The way to Obama's ancestral home was past the school. As we walked, the young man told me he had been there when Obama last paid a visit with his wife and daughters and had shook his hand. As I had been asked before, he wondered how he could get a scholarship to an American university, as had Obama's father. I told him about a Bolivian friend of mine who had managed to secure a four-year scholarship to Brandeis in Boston through an Internet search, something he ought to try.
After several minutes we came upon a fenced property with several small buildings on it. He said that was the home of Obama's brother. A little beyond was a similarly barbed-wire fenced property with a substantial metal-barred gate that was Obama's grandmother's home. There were several small buildings, none much more distinguished looking than the majority of the dwellings in the village.
A young man came out of the gate. He knew my escort and invited us in. In the distance I could see the grave of Obama's father, killed in an automobile accident in Nairobi in 1982. I asked if I could get a closer look of it and take a picture. He said that would be all right. But before we had taken ten steps a uniformed police officer came around the bend on the side of the fence we had just passed and told us to come back. He said visitors were only allowed between ten and two. I asked if I could just take a quick photograph. He said I would need permission for that and it was too late to ask. I didn't care to press the issue. I could have pleaded that I had bicycled over a thousand miles to come here and that I lived in Obama's home town and so on, but I had no desire to intrude upon Obama's grandmother. I never expected to even see her home, so was more than content with seeing what I had.
The clouds above were growing darker and darker. It was not a time to linger, but rather a time to start running. Rather than returning the way we had come, we took a short-cut through some fields around the backside of the property. My companion said we could have come this way, but he took the longer route so he could have more time to talk with me. We reached the clinic just as the rain began pelting down. As so often happens, it came down hard for nearly an hour before it slackened to a bare drizzle. I was concerned that the dirt road might be unrideable the next day. He assured me it was hard-packed enough that it could withstand the rain. I was eager for an early start the next day so I could reach the Uganda border, a little over seventy miles away.