Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tracing Obama's Roots

Folloing is my reivew of The Obamas – An Untold Story of an African Family by Peter Firstbrook, Crown Publishers, NY, 2010.

Despite the obvious intent to capitalize on President Obama’s fame, this is an extraordinary book that weaves together three strands of history: the saga of the Luo tribe’s culture and history detailing their centuries old movement from origins along the Nile River into present day western Kenya, the history of contemporary Kenya from the mid-19th century to date, and the family lore and recollections of Obama’s relatives and forbearers. Combined these themes tell a captivating story – a story that sheds light on Kenya and Luo relationships, both within the Luo community and vis-a-vis the European or Kikuyu power structure, as well as on Obama’s family.

The Luo chronicle is intriguing and traced back 800 years to origins along the Nile in today’s southern Sudan. From there the ancestors of the group that would evolve into today’s Luo tribe moved southward, establishing settlements near Pakwach in Uganda just north of Lake Albert. Both pushed by those behind and pulled by open territory ahead, over generations the Luo moved eastward across Uganda finally arriving in Kenya about 1550. A leader named Ramogi Ajwang settled a hill top named Got Ramogi near Lake Victoria in western Kenya. Several clans of Luos, including Obama’s line, date their arrival in Kenya from this epoch. Obama’s 10th great grandfather Owiny was among them. Subsequent generations include Onyango Mobam, a man born with a curved back, from whom the name Obama is thought to have originated.

Interwoven with the genealogy and oral history of the past are descriptions of Luo traditions and culture. Luo deemed themselves to be warriors of repute and competent hunters. But in addition to hunting and fishing they also kept cattle and farmed. Luo were polygamous, so keeping track of one’s place in the family could be confusing. Where one lived in a compound was based on gender and seniority. Men lived alone and wives in order separately in progressively smaller houses. Daily tasks were apportioned among boys and girls, adolescents and adults in time honored fashion. Six front teeth of men were knocked out as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Marriage protocols were strict and funerals a source of solace and celebration. Social life revolved around interactions with family and friends.

About this time in the book, the author begins interspersing Kenyan history as seen from the Luo and African perspective. Explorers trudged through the region first. They were followed in the late 19th century by a series of terrible calamities – drought and pestilence, both human and animal, destroyed the economy and killed tens of thousands of people. White men showed up again, this time to stay. First they came building the railroad to Kisumu. Government administrators and tax collectors followed. Missionaries also spread out through Nyanza, preaching the gospel and starting schools. The modern world began to interfere with the traditional one. Accommodations had to be made and the melded current culture began to emerge. Christianity, for example, took root. In the early 20th century Luo men were conscripted into the carrier corps to support the World War I effort in East Africa. They came home changed men, but found few new opportunities. That cycle repeated itself in World War II, but this time winds of change were blowing stronger. Mau Mau, which did not impact much on Luoland, erupted and the evolution towards independence, which did involve Luos, energized an emerging African political class. Subsequently, their divisions – essentially the tribal gulf between Kikuyu and Luo – would constitute the framework for the trials and tribulations of Obama, Sr.

The strand of Obama’s ancestors picks up with more detail with his 3rd great grandfather Opiyo who left the theretofore family homestead at K’ogelo in Alego for Kendu Bay on the south side of Winam Gulf. There a son born in 1864 was named Obama. In time Obama’s son Hussein Onyango (the President’s grandfather ) was born in 1895. He was a rebel, a proud man of strong and strict character. He defied his family and adopted European ways, education and clothing, but he also defied European culture by rejecting Christianity and converting to Islam. He was outspoken, so ran afoul of traditional elders. He led an eventful life, participated in two world wars, became a cook for Europeans and therefore part of the moneyed African class. He was a stickler for cleanliness and orderliness. Ultimately, apparently unfairly accused of anti-government plotting during the Mau Mau emergency he was imprisoned and broken by torture. He had at least five wives. His son Barack Obama, Sr. was born to his third wife Habiba Akuma in 1936. However, she and he quarreled and separated, so Onyango’s fifth wife Sarah (still alive) raised Barack Sr. and his sisters.

Obama Sr. too was a rebel. He was arrogant and intellectual. He disdained most around him as inferior. His big mouth and later penchant for booze would be his undoing time after time. A brilliant student he managed to wrangle a scholarship to America, to the University of Hawaii. Although already married back in Kenya, in Hawaii Obama courted and married Stanley Ann Dunham. Their child Barack, Jr. was born on August 4, 1961. Barack Sr., however, was admitted to Harvard for graduate school and left this family behind. Even though he may have visited them once or twice from Boston, the only real record of his return to Hawaii was in 1971 when Barack Jr. was ten years old. By that time Ann had divorced him.

Barack Sr. returned to Kenya (with a second American wife Ruth Nidesand) and found a job with the Central Bank. As one of the new elite, he was well plugged in to burgeoning politics and the developing patronage system. He seemed to have it made. He linked up with fellow Luo Tom Mboya and other young intellectuals. Sadly, in 1969 Barack encountered his friend Mboya on the street just moments before the latter was shot. Subsequently, without his patron, Obama’s loose talk and criticism of superiors, especially when drunk, resulted in his dismissal from the bank. He held other positions, but the end was usually another termination. Yet, his friends found Obama to be charming, loyal and engaging, even as they recognized his dark side. A notoriously poor driver, coming home from a bar in 1982 Obama veered off the road and hit a tree. He was declared dead at the scene. There was no autopsy and many continue to believe that he was a victim of Kikuyu machinations as were Luo leaders Mboya and Argwings-Kodhek before him (and Ouko afterwards).

Except for dozens of references to him, Barack Obama Jr. does not play much of a role in this book. His three visits to Kenya (the first in 1985 and two subsequently as senator) are described, as is his almost god like stature in the eyes of Kenyans, Luos especially. Author Firstbrook notes that almost every child born in Luoland in January 2009 was named Barack or Michelle – a fact that will cause no little confusion when those kids reach primary school.

In summary, I found this book to be an excellent read. It puts a lot of history and lore into perspective. For those who know Kenya, especially Nyanza Province (I served there as a PCV in the late 60s) it is doubly fascinating as it helps explain or reinforce knowledge of what was going on around us.

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