The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family
by Peter Firstbrook
Crown, 333 pp., $26.00
Families, it sometimes seems, are just a vast web of potential embarrassments…interspersed, no doubt, with the occasional opportunity for pride.1 Honor and shame, as much as love or liking, are what bind us to our kith and kin. The teenager rolls her eyes as her mother gets up to dance at the wedding; grandparents flush when their friends ask about the grandson who just “came out” in Sunday school; a wife looks down disconsolately as her intoxicated husband rises to make the after-dinner speech. We can all evoke such moments.
As for the upside: remember Aunt Rose kvelling—that wonderful Yiddish word, derived from the German Quelle, a spring, which gives just the right sense of gushing with pleasure—over her nephew’s medical degree, or those “Proud Parents of an Honor Student” bumper stickers. You may not love or like, or even know, Mary-Jane, but her kinship, once avowed, can bring you a warm glow when she wins an Oscar. “She’s my cousin,” you say to anyone who will listen. (You may not reclaim her when the stories about her rehab turn up in the tabloids, but you feel a moment of panic when your coworkers gossip about her. Do they remember Oscar night?)
Still, in the United States, it’s easy to escape your wider family. Families have contracted; the claims of kin are increasingly optional. Ancestor hunting is one of the more harmless addictions enabled by the Internet, but many Americans still couldn’t give the maiden name of both their grandmothers. In much of the rest of the world—as for most of human history—the web of kinship is rather stickier. It doesn’t just tell you who shares your “blood”; it helps fix who you are and explain why you are the way you are.
In rural Africa, certainly, things are still pretty much as they used to be everywhere. People keep track of their significant relatives and ancestors, in accordance with local rules of kinship. In most African societies, the tracing is patrilineal, running, like surnames in England, through the paternal line. Of course, mostly the people who will listen to these family histories are already family, or contemplating marrying into it. For these stories to gain a wider audience, a relative would have to achieve something truly worth kvelling over.
The British documentary maker Peter Firstbrook stepped into one of these large patrilineal clans when he arrived in Kenya, in late November 2008, to scout materials for a film about the president-elect’s Kenyan background. As he got to know the relatives of the new leader of the free world, they told him who they were in the way that was most natural to them: by connecting themselves backward in time to their ancestors.
The Obamas are Luo, belonging to an ethnic group that is now centered in Nyanza, in Western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria. In the Luo past, family history was oral history, but these days, the Obamas know, an important family should have its lineage recorded in print (as grand Europeans have studbooks like the Almanac de Gotha). So they were delighted when Firstbrook decided that the materials he was accumulating would make the most sense as a book. Which isn’t to say that his notions about family narrative were identical to theirs.
Many years ago, the Belgian anthropologist Johannes Fabian identified a tendency he called “the denial of coevalness.” “The history of our discipline,” he wrote, reveals the use of time for “distancing those who are observed from the Time of the observer.”2 But this isn’t just a professional deformation of anthropologists: presented with an African—and especially a rural African—setting, many in the West instinctively turn to thoughts of the ancient human past. Firstbrook is no exception here. He begins a timeline that appears toward the end of his book with this item:
2.4 million BC…. A manlike ape or hominid called Australopithecus africanus lives in East Africa
Is it fussy to observe that the Obamas have no special claim on A. africanus just because they happen to live on the continent where the species disappeared two million years ago? Although the book blessedly avoids extensive discussion of prehistory, it does insist on recounting—on the basis of academic historical and anthropological accounts—the migrations of the Nilotic ancestors of the modern Luo people. Firstbrook flies north from Kenya to Juba, in southern Sudan, in order to visit the vast swamp north of the Imatong Mountains called the Sudd. “Historians and anthropologists,” he tells us solemnly, “believe the southern part of the Sudd to be the ‘cradleland’ of Barack Obama’s ancestors.” As it turns out, though, they left in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Imagine a book about Bill Clinton’s family that began with the migration of the Franks—apparently Clinton has Frankish ancestry—in the fourth century: “Historians believe the middle and lower Rhine valley to be the ‘cradleland’ of William Jefferson Clinton’s ancestors.”
Fortunately by the third chapter, we are in real family history, following the life of Opiyo, the President’s great-great-grandfather, who was born in the early 1830s in Kendu Bay, on the shores of Lake Victoria. Because Firstbrook was able to recover few specific details about him, he uses this chapter to introduce Luo traditions of birth, marriage, the building of family compounds, funerals, and so on. Opiyo is a name for a firstborn twin, and given that the Luo consider twins “a bad omen,” his life would have begun with the careful carrying out of rituals to keep away harm. Despite this, he “grew to be a strong and respected leader among the Luo of south Nyanza.”
Firstbrook calls this man Opiyo Obama in the chapter’s heading…which would probably have come as news to Opiyo. According to the Luo naming system, he should have been known by the combination of his own personal name and that of his father, which was Obong’o.3 In fact, the President inherited the name Obama because it was the personal name of Opiyo’s son. When the President’s grandfather took the name Onyango Obama, he was simply following Luo tradition. “Onyango” was his personal name, “Obama” was his father’s. It wasn’t the name of a family.
The breach of naming traditions came in the generation that followed, when Onyango’s son Barack took the name Obama. In the colonial period, the father’s second name came to be treated like an English surname. The idea of an Obama family, defined by a shared family name passing from father to son, is a colonial innovation. Of course, the President’s patrilineal kin thought of themselves as a family. That’s why they had all this genealogical information. But they wouldn’t have thought they were linked by a name.
Breaking with tradition, in any case, got to be something of a habit among the President’s immediate ancestors. Onyango Obama, born in 1895, chose in his twenties to call himself Hussein, taking the name when he adopted Islam. His family, who had become Seventh-Day Adventists, were scandalized, and some speculated that he chose Islam because he thought “Muslim ladies” were more submissive. Others noted that Islam, like Luo tradition, permitted polygyny. Whatever Oyango’s reasons, the man, Firstbrook observes, “seems to have taken satisfaction in being different.”
His failure to conform may have had something to do with his service, during World War I, in the King’s African Rifles (KAR) Carrier Corps, where casualties were astonishingly high. Of 165,000 African porters, more than 50,000 died, a death rate higher than the average on Europe’s bloody western front. When he returned, he declined to reside in his father’s compound, but settled instead into an army-issue tent. “People thought he was crazy,” Firstbrook observes. Onyango’s personal style, too, was different from the rest of the family. Unlike them, he ate at a wooden table with a knife and fork, wore European clothes, and was obsessive about cleanliness. He admired the British, Firstbrook says, “especially their discipline and organization,” and by the mid-1920s, he was making a very good living as a cook for British families in and around Nairobi.
It was his fourth wife, Habiba Akumu, who first bore him children, including, in 1936, Barack Obama père. But Onyango had a notoriously violent temper, which he took out on the women and children of his household, and they soon drifted apart. In 1941, he married again, to Sarah Ogwel, who, as “Mama Sarah,” has become something of a family spokesperson and matriarch. Theirs was the longest lasting of Onyango’s marriages. “The difference between Mama Sarah and these other women,” her brother explained, “was that Sarah would not talk back to him.”
That Onyango ended up living not in Kendu Bay but in a village some fifty kilometers away called K’ogelo was the result of one of his legendary displays of temper. In 1943, two years after returning from a second stint in the KAR, Onyango was back in Kendu Bay working for a local British colonial officer. The officer suggested that Onyango organize a soccer competition and supplied a trophy. Onyango thought that the cup should be named for him; the local chief did not. A furious exchange of insults ensued, in which the chief called Onyango a jadak (settler), on the grounds that his great-great-grandfather, Obong’o, had been born elsewhere. Onyango, with magnificent pique, set off with his family back to that ancestral village.
Unsuprisingly, neither Akumu nor Sarah was delighted at the prospect of being uprooted from the only home they had known. Unsurprisingly, he took no notice of them. The move created the division in the family between the Muslims in K’ogelo and the Seventh-Day Adventists in K’obama. The division persists to this day; the soccer trophy seems to have been lost.
Not long after they arrived in K’ogelo, Onyango and Akumu had their last row. She felt in fear of her life, and walked back to Kendu Bay, leaving her children behind, to be raised by Sarah. Despite the fact that Sarah had two sons of her own, Barack was the son whose education became the family’s priority. His father went to considerable expense to send him to the Maseno boarding school, then (as now) one of the best schools in the country. But Barack left Maseno before his final year, having run afoul of a harsh headmaster. Onyango proved even harsher: he beat the returning prodigal with a stick and sent him away. “I will see how you enjoy yourself, earning your own meals,” he said.
By the mid-1950s, Barack was working for the Kenya Railway in Nairobi. While visiting his relatives in K’obama, he reconnected with Kezia Nyandega, a young woman he had known as a child in primary school. She recalls the first time they danced together at a Christmas party in Kendu Bay in 1956: “I thought, ‘Ohhh, wow!’ He was so lovely with his dancing. So handsome and so smart.” The attraction was apparently mutual and she became the first of Barack Obama Sr.’s four wives.
1 Message to my own family: you are a splendid exception, of course. I am proud of every one of you. ↩
2 Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (Columbia University Press, 1983), p. 25. ↩
3 Firstbrook visited the grave of Opiyo's son, whose headstone, which was added relatively recently, is reproduced in the book. There he is called "Obama K'Opiyo." In his comment on the visit, Firstbrook appears to conflate the two men, since he refers to him both as the great-grandfather of the President and as having been born around 1830. But the family tree at the front of the book says it was great-great-grandfather Opiyo who was born around 1833. As a result of this confusion, when he takes up the life of Opiyo a few chapters later, a less than careful reader might lose track of the fact that it is the President's great-great-grandfather that is under discussion. In other words, the man called, on the gravestone, Obama K'Opiyo is not the man Firstbrook calls Opiyo Obama, but his son. ↩
Message to my own family: you are a splendid exception, of course. I am proud of every one of you. ↩
Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (Columbia University Press, 1983), p. 25. ↩
Firstbrook visited the grave of Opiyo's son, whose headstone, which was added relatively recently, is reproduced in the book. There he is called "Obama K'Opiyo." In his comment on the visit, Firstbrook appears to conflate the two men, since he refers to him both as the great-grandfather of the President and as having been born around 1830. But the family tree at the front of the book says it was great-great-grandfather Opiyo who was born around 1833. As a result of this confusion, when he takes up the life of Opiyo a few chapters later, a less than careful reader might lose track of the fact that it is the President's great-great-grandfather that is under discussion. In other words, the man called, on the gravestone, Obama K'Opiyo is not the man Firstbrook calls Opiyo Obama, but his son. ↩