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October 01st 2011 print

Robert Murray

The African Obamas


Peter Firstbrook, The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family (Arrow, 2010), 338 pages, $24.95


Prominent politicians typically have an X factor in their background that makes them especially keen to be conspicuously important. Often it is early tragedy, an unusual or difficult parent or forebear or a very strong mother or wife. One caustic commentator said of Jimmy Carter when he entered the presidential race that he was “purely a creation of his wife and mother”. His mother later volunteered publicly to “pull the nose” of the troublesome Ayatollah Khomeini.

President Barack Obama might be thought to be carrying enough inherited emotional weight already, as mixed race: genetically he is 50 per cent Kenyan, 37 per cent English, and the balance Irish, German, Swiss, Welsh and Scots, according to Peter Firstbrooks lively account of his Kenyan relatives.

Many accounts, including his own, have stressed the role of his white American grandmother, who often looked after his upbringing while working her way from a mature-age secretary’s job in a Honolulu bank through to become its first woman senior executive. But his Kenyan folk were far from being simple, unsophisticated Africans. His father, Barack senior (also known informally as Barry) had a “massive ego” and ambition and arrogance to match. He had an amazing way with the ladies as he worked through four wives and many a lesser liaison before he died aged forty-six in 1982. He was a “charismatic charmer”, outspoken to a fault, naturally honest and generous—but also inclined to let others pay when he was drinking too much, which was all too often.

There was nothing specifically Kenyan or African about this. The many Kenyan contemporaries Peter Firstbrook spoke to had much the same view of such a person that Australians would have—awe, vividness, affection and admiration mixed with disapproval. He seemed to me not a million miles away in personality from one Australian prime minister of the 1980s.

He believed his exceptional intelligence entitled him to exceptional favours. However, it was not enough to get him into the first batch of eighty-one bright young Kenyans selected in 1959 for top American universities under a Washington “Airlift Africa” program to help keep Africa on side in the Cold War. Instead he got a place in a “second team” to go down the pecking order to the University of Hawaii in 1960. The favour and support of ladies in the US Embassy in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, was a big factor in this, though he liked to imply a Kennedy connection.

Barack senior was not long in Hawaii before he met and married the naive, idealistic but adventurous eighteen-year-old Ann Dunham, not long out of Seattle; she had come to Hawaii when her father got the job of managing a furniture store there. Their only child, Barack junior, was born six months after the wedding, in August 1961. According to Firstbrook, Barack senior did not mention to his new wife that he already had a son and pregnant wife in Kenya; under American law he was a bigamist.

Two years later, he was off with a scholarship—which was too meagre to support a wife and child—to study for a PhD in economics at the far more prestigious Harvard, to divorce Ann and marry another American, who was to follow him and make a home in Kenya, though that marriage too did not last. Back home in newly independent Kenya, Barack senior worked as an economist for Shell and later the government. He was a close personal friend and drinking mate of fellow charismatic Tom Mboya, who was thought likely to succeed the foundation President, Jomo Kenyatta.

Mboya and Obama were from the big Luo tribe of western Kenya. Mboya alone might have had the stature to head the country from a lesser tribe and break the expectation that the top job would always go to the Kikuyu, who had 22 per cent of the population compared to the Luo’s 13 per cent. Mboya might thus not only have been able to weaken the strength of tribalism but also provide the ability and honesty needed. But he was assassinated in 1969.

Barack senior’s Kenyan family and friends suspect that he too was murdered by the Kikuyu-dominated government, though officially a car crash killed him. At the time he appeared frustrated, with few new fields left to conquer and his career in trouble through candour about the failings of colleagues and bosses. His drinking and reckless driving were getting worse. But supporters say the injuries he sustained were not severe enough to kill him; they believe somebody slipped poison into his drink.

His twenty-one-year-old son heard the news about the father he hardly knew by telephone in New York. Barack senior had claimed to be proud of his brilliant little boy back in Hawaii, but only once and briefly came back to see him and rarely kept in touch.

Barack senior was not President Obama’s only colourful forebear. Barack senior’s father, Hussein Onyango Obama (1895–1979), was a gifted, hot-headed individualist, regarded when young of being eccentric in a communally-minded society that prized conformity. Most people in his home district near Lake Victoria in western Kenya were Seventh-Day Adventists, a religion brought earlier by American missionaries. Most other Kenyans were Anglican or Catholic, their families having chosen these traditions, introduced by missionaries from Britain and Ireland, instead of their own traditional animism. Odd-man-out Onyango, however, chose Islam (not knowing that it might embarrass a future grandson). Islam was common only on the coast, introduced there centuries earlier by Arab traders. Taking the name Hussein, the young Onyango, who spent time in coastal Mombasa, reasoned that Christianity, with its emphasis on forgiveness and marital fidelity, was not appropriate for Kenya.

Otherwise and perhaps paradoxically, however, Onyango was resolutely pro-white and pro-British at a time—the first half of last century—when colonial occupation was sensitive and divisive. He spent much of his younger life working for whites, as houseboy and then cook, and encouraged others to do so. While remaining a proud African, he admired white efficiency and cleanliness. “If you do a good job for the white man, then he will always pay you well,” he used to say.

He was ardent for a more educated Kenya and distraught when his occasionally wayward son dropped out—though the gifted youngster did drop in again. The son, second name Hussein like his own future son, rejected Islam too, for atheism.

Onyango married a little late and then five times and was extremely authoritarian and often violent in the home. His first wife and the President’s grandmother, walked out—very un-Kenyan—when he threatened to kill her for disobedience. The old man would not let her have the children and his next wife, Sara—still alive now and another strong woman—brought them up. The common problems and divisions of step-parenting resulted. 

I found Firstbrook’s account fascinating not only for what it adds about the man with the most important job in the world, but also for bringing Kenya to life. A British documentary film-maker, Firstbrook has swept aside the curtain of culture and colour to make Kenyans people like us. They were usually friendly and eager to have their story told, proud, gossipy and a little bemused by their most famous, if unusual, family. At times it all seemed rather like pre-war rural Australia. It would also have had similarities with the Dunhams’ 1930s rural Kansas. Then one is jolted to read about the multiple marriages, the lurking leopards and hyenas, witch doctors, political executions, corruption and lingering superstition. And a people often adept at English and Swahili as well as their tribal tongue.

Kenya was traditionally polygamous, with four or five wives common, the wives usually living in separate huts in the same compound. The interplay of this with more modern, Western practices and outlooks makes, at least for an outsider, a moral as well as genealogical conundrum.

The history Firstbrook weaves into his narrative traces the Luo migrating from the north to Kenya over several centuries, the modernising arrival of Western missionaries and traders in the mid-nineteenth century, and then the mixed blessing of a private enterprise east–west railway from Mombasa to tap the supposed riches of Uganda further inland. The losses on this, even after seemingly exploitative, even cruel and lethal labour in building it, induced a steadily more embroiled London to bring in taxable white farmers to take over Kikuyu land after 1900. Kenya then became dragged, against earlier intentions, into the slaughter of the First World War, fighting neighbouring German-ruled Tanganyika. The bitter war experience made the Africans more astute and less awed about whites.

Resentment mixed with welcome intensified, evolving into a gradually more coherent nationalist movement. Criminal gangs from the urban slums moved in, resulting in the murderous Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, which was part gangster, part genuine nationalist and partly a civil war between more and less anti-British Kikuyu elements. Other tribes mostly kept their distance but the Obamas became unwittingly implicated. In 1949, a treacherous tribal rival, who Onyango had denounced as a crook, informed falsely that the President’s relatively pro-British grandfather was a subversive. Six months of internment left him a broken old man. The young Barack senior was also briefly imprisoned for attending a nationalist meeting out of interest during the Mau Mau period. The elite usually deplored the power of tribalism, but opposition was more easily preached than practised, given the pressures and temptations of life, especially public life.

The President’s aunt Hawa Auma—Barack senior’s sister—encapsulates the story. Firstbrook found her a smiling, engaging, enthusiastic old woman making perhaps $2 a day selling charcoal from a roadside stall. She was, he says, his “favourite Kenyan ‘aunt’”. 

Robert Murray is an historical writer who has written widely about politics and politicians.