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The Apple Fell Far from the Tree

AP Images
Ten-year-old Barack Obama with his father, Barack Obama Sr., probably at the Honolulu airport, December 1971

Meanwhile, he was getting caught up in the whirlwind of independence activism. These were the years of Mau Mau and many Kenyans—Onyango among them—were subjected to the indignities of interrogation and detention. Barack, too, was arrested, at a meeting of a banned independence organization. He was released at the insistence of his white employer, who assured the police that Barack had nothing to do with Mau Mau. Oyango had declined to pay his son’s bail: he took Barack’s political activities to be yet another instance of his irresponsible ways.

Firstbrook describes clearly the wider historical background to the Obamas’ progress through twentieth-century Kenya. We see the arrival of British colonial rule in East Africa and the competition between British and German colonization efforts in East Africa, which World War I decided in Britain’s favor. We learn how the two world wars affected life in Kenya, uprooting men like Onyango Obama; we watch the emerging independence movement and the Mau Mau uprising, in which tens of thousands of Kenyan Africans, many of them children, were killed, as well as a relatively small number of European settlers.4 We see the coming of independence and the rising conflict between the leaders of the Kikuyu and Luo communities. Barack Sr. became a close friend of the leading Luo politician of the independence generation, Tom Mboya, and his destiny was tied, for the rest of his life, to the fate of the Luo political leadership.

In 1959, Tom Mboya announced the “Airlift Africa” program, with fund-raising assistance from African-American public figures such as Jackie Robinson, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier, as well as various white liberals. The aim was to allow future Kenyan leaders to study on American campuses. Obama, having left high school without doing his final exams, didn’t get one of these scholarships. But eventually he prepared for and took the exams, and, with the financial assistance of two American women who were living in Nairobi, he was able to study at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu. Firstbrook adds, “The records of Barack’s move to the United States are incomplete, but it seems that he also received some funding from Jackie Robinson.”

In 1960, in his second year at the university, Barack met Ann Dunham, the daughter of a furniture salesman from Kansas who had lived in several American cities with his wife since World War II. The two young people began dating, and Barack evidently felt no need to mention his wife and two children back in Nairobi. Soon, Ann was pregnant, and—over Onyango’s long-distance objections—the two got married, with only her parents as witnesses. Six months later, she gave birth to her now-famous son.

Barack Obama Sr. graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1962 with a degree in economics, and took up the offer of graduate education at Harvard. Ann—who had dropped out early in their marriage—stayed in Honolulu and returned to college. In Cambridge, Barack was soon exploring new possibilities. As one of his Kenyan fellow graduate students put it: “The women liked this man.”

Of course, in the world from which he came, having a wife or two was not a reason to avoid other women. There is some uncertainty about whether Obama visited his American wife and child in Hawaii in the three years he was at Harvard: one of his friends from the period recalls him boasting about his son and visiting him “more than once.” In Dreams from My Father, his son remembers only one visit, years later, in 1971, when he was ten years old. In 1964, Ann Dunham filed for divorce. By then, Barack had taken up with Ruth Nidesand, a teacher of Lithuanian-Jewish ancestry who became his third wife. A year later, he gave up his doctoral studies and returned home.

The young Obama had left a colony. He returned to a country. Jomo Kenyatta was the president of independent Kenya, and Tom Mboya was minister of justice and constitutional affairs. Barack, who published a paper, “Problems Facing Our Socialism,” in 1965, focusing on the perpetuation of colonial-era inequality in the postcolonial nation, found a highly paid position in Kenya’s Central Bank.5 His very active social life included countless parties with some of the leading figures in the government, although, Firstbrook writes, he was keener on ordering rounds of drinks than paying for them.

Then, in 1969, Mboya was assassinated, and Nairobi exploded in ethnic rioting, amid suspicions that the killing was the work of Kenyatta and his Kikuyu supporters. Over the next six months, interethnic relations in Kenya deteriorated, culminating in an extraordinary speech by Kenyatta that referred to the Luo in his audience as “writhing little insects…who have dared to come here to speak dirty words.” There were more riots; police massacres brewed more enmity. And Obama suffered the fate of many Luo in the period. While Mboya had been alive and in power, he had had a protector. Now, he was going to have to fend for himself.

He did not have the habits or the temperament to succeed on his own. He was a party-loving, hard-drinking man—nicknamed “Mr. Double-Double” because he liked to order two double whiskies at once; his binges meant he didn’t always show up for work. He was a loud, frank critic of a government that had made it clear that it was not going to tolerate “dirty words.” And the first problem exacerbated the second, since he was especially prone to making verbal assaults on the government when he was in his cups.

In the last decade of his life, Barack Obama Sr. slid slowly into the abyss. He was fired from a series of jobs. He had, as Firstbrook puts it, “a reputation for having a massive ego and a big mouth, both of which grew alarmingly when he started drinking.” He was also, according to Ruth’s son Mark, abusive to his wife and children, and Ruth eventually left him, taking her sons with him.

For all that, in 1981, he married a young Luo woman—apparently the women still liked this man—and in the summer of 1982, Kezia, the last of his wives, gave birth to George, the last of his sons. A few months later, Obama was dead in a car accident. He had set off home at the wheel after an evening spent drinking in a downtown bar in Nairobi and driven off the road into a tree.

This being Kenya, there were suspicions among his circle of friends that he was yet another Luo big man assassinated by the government. But Barack had a history of driving drunk and getting into accidents. Mama Sarah told Firstbrook, “We think there was foul play there.” Charles Oluoch—President Obama’s cousin—offered one family theory: his uncle had been poisoned in the bar: “They put something in your drink and they know you will be driving. At a certain point, you will lose control. It will look as if it was an accident.” Firstbrook passes this on as a “very serious accusation,” and you can see why the Obamas want to believe it. It makes the stupidity of death in the last of a series of alcohol-fueled accidents easier to accept: it also suggests that Barack Obama Sr.—a drunk who had talked himself out of one job after another—was still important enough to be worth killing.

Learning what President Obama’s father was like hardly makes one feel that our president would have been better off if Barack Obama Sr. had stuck around. Indeed, the son’s isolation from his father and grandfather—and his immersion in his mother’s happier and much more helpful family—must be part of what explains the contrasts between his persona and theirs. He is inclined to caution and self-restraint; they tended to be impulsive. He is slow to anger; they ignited like flash paper. They were men who desired many women and honored none; the President’s marriage seems a model of love and respect. What the three generations of Obama men have in common is intelligence, charm, ambition, and pride. But no doubt his Dunham ancestors could lay claim to those traits, too.

So don’t turn to The Obamas for enlightenment about the hidden motives of presidential policy making. The appeal of this book is, rather, like that of those centuries-spanning sagas that James Michener used to publish. At its best, Firstbrook’s book uses the glamour of the Obama name to invite readers to learn about a not-atypical East African family, and so gain insights into Kenyan history. The mistake would be to regard this family history as a fount of insight into our Obama.

The epigraph to Firstbrook’s prologue is the Luo proverb “Wat en wat,” which means (so he tells us) “Kinship is kinship.” Actually, though, things aren’t that straightforward. One Obama tradition the President has continued is of the son whose father provided a superfluity of reasons for embarrassment. Meanwhile, back in Kendu Bay, the Obamas take pride in their far-off kinsman. Barack Sr.’s sister Hawa Auma—who makes perhaps two dollars a day selling charcoal—may not be rich in the things of this world, but she can kvell over the fact that she is the aunt of the most powerful man in the world.

  1. 4

    No one now believes the official British figures that 11,503 Kenyan Africans were killed; as Firstbrook writes, the death toll of thirty-two European settlers is widely accepted. Caroline Elkins in her controversial Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (Henry Holt, 2005) estimates that more than a million Kenyans were detained and that a hundred thousand may have died. 

  2. 5

    A more in-depth discussion of this work, and of this period in Barack Sr.’s life, can be found in Chapter 1 of David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (Knopf, 2010). 

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