Obama’s roots inspire Kenyan dad’s homeland

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JERSEY CITY, N.J. In the 17 years since Samuel Nyamwange came to New Jersey from Kenya, he’s gotten used to his family calling about once every six weeks to check in.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. In the 17 years since Samuel Nyamwange came to New Jersey from Kenya, he’s gotten used to his family calling about once every six weeks to check in.

That changed after Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, was elected president of the United States.

"Now, they’re calling almost twice a week: ‘Has he (Obama) done anything yet?’" Nyamwange said. "They think he’s going to announce that everybody can come over here."

Nyamwange said he, like many Kenyan immigrants in America, has suddenly gained near rock-star status back home since the election.

"Everybody wants to come over here (to America) now," Nyamwange said. "They want to come here and see things for themselves, and to thank Obama for making Kenya great."

Wilfred Nyakundi, the owner of Mzalendo, a Jersey City convenience store that’s a popular gathering place for Kenyan immigrants, hears similar questions when his relatives call.

"The first thing they ask you these days is ‘How is Obama?’ — before they ask ‘How are you?’" Nyakundi said with a laugh. "They are excited, and they want to know more from us. They think since we’re here, we’re experiencing things directly."

Kenyans feel a special connection to Obama, and many in Jersey City, home to one of the nation’s largest Kenyan immigrant communities, are especially proud of Obama’s roots.

It doesn’t matter to them that Obama is an American, born in Hawaii to an American mother and Kenyan father, and has only visited the East African nation a handful of times. Kenyans see a source of home pride in every gesture.

"He’s a very warm person; he has a Kenyan handshake," said Jaris Mogoi of Jersey City, describing a grip that’s firm and welcoming. "He even greets the journalists when he enters a press conference. That’s very Kenyan."

Mogoi said while others watched the inauguration to see what Michelle Obama was wearing or which dignitaries were in attendance, he kept his eyes on Obama’s Kenyan relatives on the dais. He was hoping to catch a glimpse of them making a dry spitting gesture into his palm — a Kenyan sign of blessing.

Mogoi said the TV cameras may not have caught the gesture, but he’s sure it happened. He said watching Obama’s swearing in was the proudest day of his life.

"If I wrote a book, I would not miss to say that I was a Kenyan in America when the first African-American was elected president, and he is a Kenyan," Mogoi said. "When I saw the Americans shedding tears — and not being born here — to see Americans cry, I felt such joy I cried, too."

Akollo Odundo, who has lived in Jersey City’s Kenyan community for many years, said a joke among Kenyans is that those not from Obama’s Luo tribe in Kenya, often indicated by last names that start with an "O," have been adding an "O” onto their surnames.

"Everybody wants to be his tribe now, even those fighting his tribe," Odundo said. "The Luos lost the presidency in Kenya, but they got the presidency of the U.S. so it’s like compensation; he’s brought tribe reconciliation."

Nyamwange, who works as a parking lot attendant in Newark, said immigrants from other African countries who used to call him "Kenya" have switched to calling all Kenyans "Obama." He gestured to a group of Ghanian immigrants working at a rival parking lot across the street, who were shouting "Hey Obama! Obama!" to get his attention.

"Before, I called him ‘Ghana’ and he called me ‘Kenya,’" Nyamwange said. "Now, Africa is one small country because of one man — now we’re all part of a small village called ‘Africa.’"

Nyamwange said other Kenyans considered him lucky because few get a visa to come to America, out of the thousands that apply. U.S. State Department spokesman Andrew Laney said the number of U.S. visas issued to Kenyans has steadily increased in recent years, although he said the agency doesn’t release those figures.

Laney said the agency made no correlation between the increase and Obama’s popularity.

Nyamwange disagreed, describing an intense clamor to immigrate to America since Obama won the election.

"They were trying before, now it’s more serious than before," he said. "Now, it’s: ‘Our son is in charge of this country, we have got to see this.’”

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Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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