If you think Obama-mania is out of control in the United States, you should get a hit of it in Kenya. When US Senator Barack Obama announced he was considering a presidential bid, it was front-page news in the East African nation where his father was born. Taxi drivers love to ask Americans what they’d think of having their first Kenyan President. One Nairobi-based safari company even operates tours to the Senator’s ancestral village, complete with “evening tea and a photograph with [Obama’s] grandmother.”
Some Kenyans wish the attention to the place where Obama claims his roots would translate into a new dose of concern about the people who currently live there. Dorothy Owiti hails from the same part of the country as Obama’s father: Siaya province, on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria. While the Senator’s ancestral home is becoming a tourist attraction, Owiti’s lies submerged beneath floodwaters, thanks to the operations of a US company. This January, Owiti and several of her neighbors attended the World Social Forum in Nairobi with a message for the Senator.
“I would like to tell Barack Obama that somewhere down here in his homeland, we are really suffering,” she told RadioNation. “If he has us at heart, let him do something. Tell the president of Dominion Farms to stop destroying our lives in Africa.”
Dominion Farms, an affiliate of Dominion Group, based in Oklahoma, moved into Siaya in 2003 through an arrangement with the local and state authorities. After several years of negotiations, Dominion CEO Calvin Burgess leased public land from the government on a pledge to develop a high-tech fish and rice farming operation that he promised would bring jobs, reduce hunger and make Siaya and neighboring Bondo provinces the “breadbasket” of Kenya. (In the United States, Dominion builds for-profit prisons and federal buildings.)
Until Dominion came along, the people of this part of Kenya made their living drawing water from the local Yala River. They raised goats and cows and farmed small plots of land. Widows and children harvested papyrus and sisal from the nearby swamp from which they crafted rough mats and baskets. A major habitat for endangered fish and birds, the Yala Swamp is recognized by environmentalists as one of the richest and most delicate ecosystems in East Africa. The half-million or so local residents weren’t rich but they were self-sufficient, says Owiti. Now they’re forced to live on the generosity of churches or on the corporation’s handouts.
“Development should not bring harm to the local community,” said Owiti at the World Social Forum. But that, she says, is just what has happened. In the last four years, Dominion Farms has built a dam on the Yala River, drained much of the swamp, subjected the fields to aerial spraying and drowned not only public land but, residents claim, private property without legal authority.