NEWS

Random encounter leads man to meeting with Obama's family abroad

Erinn Deshinsky

When Peorian Ron Love, on a recent trip to Kenya, told people he was from Illinois, more times than not the natives excitedly responded with the same one-word phrase.

"Obama."

They all were familiar with Barack Obama, Democratic presidential nominee and Illinois senator - and the son of a Kenyan. However, as Love found out, some in the east African country also are friendly with Obama's Kenyan family members.

Those family members include Sarah Obama, Obama's 86-year-old step-grandmother, whom he himself met during his trip.

Love never intended to meet "Mama Sarah," as she is called, let alone travel halfway across the world.

The idea was planted about eight years ago as he was skiing with a friend. "We talked about wouldn't it be neat to climb Mount Kilimanjaro," Love said.

About a year ago, when he again ran into this friend, the thought turned into reality.

Love made the journey this past July. The 10-day Kilimanjaro climb was a success, and he memorialized the feat by tying a scarf belonging to his late mother on the highest post at the mountain's peak. He also tacked a satchel of rose petals from his daughter's wedding there as a token of accomplishment.

Love said his trip greatly benefitted from the hospitality from friends he'd met through Peoria's running community. One was Luke Kipkosgei, a Kenyan native he met during the Steamboat Classic races this past year. Love took Kipkosgei sailing on the Illinois River and in turn Kipkosgei invited Love to his home in Eldoret, Kenya.

It was on a flight from there to the mountain, which is in Tanzania, that Love had one of those familiar "Obama" conversations - which in turn led him to a chance introduction to Sarah Obama.

"On the plane, I had an empty seat next to me and a fellow sat next to me," Love said. "They are very proud, they say 'Obama!' He said he knew Mama Sarah."

The man said when Love returned from the climb, he would take the American to meet Mama Sarah.

"I never imagined I would meet her," Love said, as he explained how they merely drove up a narrow dirt road to her front yard.

Sarah Obama, also known as Sarah Ogwel, lives in a rural home outside a small village, Nyang'oma Kogelo. Love said the home had a bright blue steel front door and corn drying in the back yard.

As he had encountered throughout his trip, Sarah Obama - like other Kenyans he'd met - was warm and welcoming.

"It was incredible how accepting they were," he said.

Sarah Obama spoke no English - only her native language - but Love spoke to her through a relative named Nelson, who claimed to be Obama's half-brother. Toward the end of the visit, Love gave Sarah Obama a scarf that his daughter had worn.

"It was cute," he said. "She said, 'What's he trying to do, make me look 25?'"

Sarah Obama had many pictures and other items hanging on her wall of her famous grandson - who in her country is called a "wonder-boy."

Love was often asked by the Kenyans if he thought Barack Obama would become president.

"And I said, 'I think so, yes.' And they were very proud of him," Love said, adding Nelson seemed to think Love knew the candidate personally. "He said 'When you see Barack, tell him hi and good luck and that you're going to vote for him.'"

Erinn Deshinsky can be reached at (309) 686-3112 or edeshinsky@pjstar.com.