Getting back to his roots
Books editor John Spain gets an insight into the untold story of Barack Obama's African ancestry, from colonisation to independence and beyond
Published 26/06/2010 | 05:00
Today -- like most days -- the old woman pictured above will sit on the side of the road outside the small rural town of Oyugis on the eastern side of Lake Victoria. She will be selling charcoal and if today is a good day, she will make about $2. Her name is Hawa Auma and she is President Barack Obama's aunt, his closest living relative in Kenya where his African family has lived for generations.
Hawa Auma knows all about her nephew. She was one of about 100 members of the extended Obama family who gathered around a flickering television in the nearby Kobama village on the evening of January 20 last year to watch Barack Obama being sworn in as President of the United States. She is just one of the Obama clan interviewed in detail for a new book about Obama's African ancestry.
Obama's Irish ancestry was explored recently in Steve MacDonogh's book on the Kearneys, a family history that encompassed the creation of America from the pioneers to the present day. Now BBC journalist Peter Firstbrook's book The Obamas tells the story of the other side of the president's background, that of his African family, the Obamas. Again, this is not just the story of one family; it's the story of a part of Africa over many generations, through colonisation to independence and beyond.
The Obamas were Luo tribes people originally from the Sudan who migrated to the lands around Lake Victoria centuries ago. The book follows their story over 400 years, tracing the president's forebears from famous tribal warriors in the 17th century to the farmers and fishermen they became in villages around Kendu Bay on the eastern side of the vast lake.
It describes the impact of the arrival of the whites in the area in the early 1900s, following the carve-up of Africa between the European powers at the infamous Berlin conference in 1885. It shows the effect of colonialism in fascinating detail and the methods used by the British to manage the huge area in East Africa under their control.
It tells the story of the development of Kenya over the four or five colonial decades, the growing pressure for independence in the 1950s, the carnage of the Mau Mau rebellion and the challenges facing the new state.
Obama's personal story really begins with his grandfather, Hussein Onyango, who went to a rural school run by the newly arrived British in the early 1900s, defied his traditional family to wear Western clothes and left home as a teenager to go to work in the city. He became a Muslim, partly because the religion tolerated multiple wives. It's from him that the president gets the Hussein part of his name.
Onyango's schooling secured him work as a servant with colonial families (including the Happy Valley set) and he spent his earnings on cattle for his farm near the lake, some of which he used to buy his various wives.
He was one of the many East Africans caught up in the world wars (Germany and Britain were the two colonial powers in that part of the continent and waged a proxy war in the area). In peacetime he prospered, although his domestic arrangements were so complicated he was never well off.
He was quite a character, unafraid of witch doctors who he beat up when they bothered him; his lifetime spanned the change from the traditional way of living to the new era brought in by the colonials, which he embraced with enthusiasm.
His son, Barack Snr, spent his childhood in a mud hut in his father's compound on the shores of the lake. Good at primary school, his father paid for him to go to the secondary school in the area. But Barack Snr was as headstrong as his father. When he got into trouble in school they argued and Barack Snr left home at 17 to work in Mombasa and then, at the age of 19, in Nairobi.
While in Nairobi he married for the first time (like his father, he married at least four or five times) and became the protege of another Luo, Tom Mboyo, an activist who later became the Justice Minister in the first government of Kenya.
Eventually Barack Snr got the A-levels he needed for college and became one of the dozens of Kenyans given scholarships by American universities anxious to help the emerging country in the run-up to independence.
Barack Snr left Kenya in 1959 and ended up in the University of Hawaii in September 1960, studying maths and economics, where within a few months he was dating fellow student 18-year-old Ann Dunham, who he did not tell about his wife (and two children) back in Nairobi. By November Ann was pregnant with the future president and they married a few months later.
Barack Snr graduated in Hawaii in 1962 and went off to Harvard on another scholarship, leaving Ann and Barack Jnr behind. The marriage was all but over and Barack Snr soon had "lots of girlfriends" at Harvard.
Ann filed for divorce in 1964 and he married another white woman (who he had met in Harvard) after returning to Kenya without finishing his PhD (although subsequently he often called himself doctor).
He had minimal contact with his son back in Hawaii. The most poignant picture in the book is that of the 10-year-old Barack Jnr with his father in Hawaii at Christmas in 1971, the only paternal visit that Barack Jnr can remember. The way he is holding his father's arm speaks volumes.
Barack Snr initially was successful at home (his first jobs were as an economist with Shell and then in the Kenyan Central Bank). But his excessive drinking, womanising and loud criticism of the government were his undoing. When Mboyo was killed he lost his mentor and protector and went downhill fast, losing jobs and status and leaving behind several former wives when he died in a car crash after a night's drinking.
The pace of change in the lives of Hussein Onyango and his son Barack Snr was extraordinary.
Onyango's family wore animal-skin loincloths but he embraced clothes and education. His son Barack Snr spent his childhood in a mud hut but he got to Harvard. And his son is now president of the US.
The real fascination of this book, however, is the way the complex story of the Obamas mirrors the equally complex story of Kenya and, indeed, of Africa. It's a real insight into the good, the bad and the ugly of colonialism, into how education inevitably brought the demand for freedom, into rebellion and savagery like the Mau Mau years, and into the heady idealism, corruption and confusion that followed independence.
There are no facile judgements in this book, either about colonialism or anything else. Onyango's views on the difference between the white man and the black man are an example. He was a stickler for colonial style order and cleanliness, yet his lifestyle remained expansively African. His son Barack Snr had many of the same characteristics. In the end, this is not just the story of one family with a famous descendant; it's the story of a continent.
The Obamas -- the Untold Story of an African Family, by Peter Firstbrook, is published on July 1 by Preface (Random House) at £17.99