'Barack's voice was just like his father's - I thought he had come back from the dead'

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As Lake Victoria disappeared to the south, the road rose and fell, winding gently through the boulder-strewn hills of far western Kenya. Men rode heavy single-speed bicycles with sacks of charcoal strapped to the back; women walked, buckets of bananas balanced perfectly on their heads. Where a sign pointed the route to the Senator Obama Secondary School - Motto: Endeavour to excel - the asphalt gave way to bumpy red dirt. An American flag hung in front of the New Apostolic Church, providing a further clue to the identity of the village's favourite son.

A few miles further on, an 86-year-old woman sat on a plastic chair under a mango tree outside her simple three-bedroom house with a pale-blue corrugated iron roof. Television crews waited their turn to interview her. As chickens squawked, and cows grazed nearby, Sarah Obama appeared perplexed as to what the media fuss was all about.

"It's just a job, a government job," said "Mama Sarah", step-grandmother of the man who this week became the Democratic candidate in the US presidential race, during a recent visit. "I am not going to make a big deal out of it or pretend that it's anything really great."

Her comments would surely amuse Barack Obama, who first met his "granny" in his 20s when he came to Kenya in search of his roots. For while they show a refreshing modesty and honesty in a presidential campaign full of hyperbole, they also hint at the distance travelled by the Obama family over just three generations.

The story begins a few metres away from where Mama Sarah was sitting. There, an unpainted concrete headstone marks the resting place of her husband, Hussein Onyango Obama, herbalist, farmer and village elder. As Mama Sarah recounted in Barack Obama's 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father, Hussein was one of the first people in the village to wear trousers and a shirt rather than the traditional goatskin.

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