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'Nilotic' Link Places Obama's Roots in Southern Sudan

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By Bruno Gaston

International Editor

ATLANTA, Sept. 3, 2008, 12 a.m. - As Barack Obama's lineage continues to be investigated and linked to persons around the world, Southern Sudanese are beginning to lay claim to the first black nominee for a major U.S. political party though his paternal ancestry.

"Obama is a Nilote and his father is a Luo tribe," said Emmanuel Jal, a Sudanese ex-child soldier turned rapper. "The Luos came from the upper Nile in the 1500s A.D." 

Nilote is a term referring to people of indigenous tribes from Sudan along the upper Nile Valley.

Jal hopes that by exposing the link that a properly informed Obama may form a stronger stance against the Khartoum government if elected.

"I think the only person who would understand the situation in Sudan and try to make a move would be Obama because the descendants of his father were from Sudan," he said.

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The news about Obama's Nilotic roots comes as the media have recently delved into his father's writings and discovered two of Obama's half brothers living abroad.

The Luo are Kenya's third largest ethnic group and largely concentrated in the western province of Nyanza. According to renowned Luo historian Bethwell Ogot's book, "History of the Southern Luo: Volume 1 Migration and Settlement," Luos probably originated at Wau in Southern Sudan. This might place Obama close to celebrities like Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek and NBA star Luol Deng, both of whom were born there. Jok Madut Jok, who is a professor of African studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, thinks Obama's Luo heritage paints a small portrait of early migration from Sudan.

"The Nilotes are generally one people with the Luo being part of it including the Nuer where Jal comes from and the Dinka where I come from, but now the Luo are speaking about the similarities amongst themselves separate from the Nilotic group," Jok said. "In current geopolitics, people are referring to these groups as Greater Luo including the Luo in Kenya themselves, the Acholi in Uganda, and many other Nilotes. These classifications are primarily linguistic and have nothing to do with larger social or racial differences."

The Luo community in Kenya has its own political following. The country's prime minister, Raila Odinga, is an ethnic Luo and hosted Obama during his August 2006 Africa tour after being elected U.S. senator of Illinois. Odinga's father, Jararamgi Oginga Odinga, was the first vice president of independent Kenya.

Linguistically, "Barack" is derived from "Baraka" meaning "blessing" in Arabic and Swahili which is widely spoken in Eastern and Central Africa. Luo elders say "Obama" does not have a solid translation in their Dholuo language, but is similar to the word "Obam" meaning "crooked" or "bending."

Obama did not return a call to comment.

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