Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why Obama wept for his father

By the time he arrived in Kenya in 1987 for a month-long visit prior to moving to Boston to begin law school, Barack Obama had already learned some surprising truths about his father from his half sister Auma.

During an earlier visit to Chicago, she had told Obama that she and her brother Roy were born before their father left for Hawaii in 1959 and were living with their mother in Kogelo when he returned from America with a new wife, a white woman named Ruth.

Auma and Roy went to live in Nairobi with their father — who was working for an American oil company — and Ruth, who eventually bore him two more children. “The Old Man,” as his African children called Obama’s father, owned a large house in Nairobi, drove a big car, and enjoyed high status and privileges thanks to friends in the highest reaches of the new Government of independent Kenya.

Falling out
After he quit the oil company and joined the Government, working in the Ministry of Tourism, however, he had a falling out with the President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, after tensions grew between Mzee Kenyatta’s tribe — the Kikuyu — and the Old Man’s Luo community.

Before long the Old Man was fired from his post and blacklisted. He found doors in all the ministries and government agencies closed to him and ended up with an insignificant job in the Water Department.

Despondent over his reduced status and angry that his old friends treated him like a pariah, he began drinking heavily and frequently lost his temper with his wife and children.

Ruth left him while he was recovering in the hospital for nearly a year after a car accident in which the other driver, a white farmer, had been killed. (It was after he was released from the hospital that Obama’s father visited Hawaii, to spend Christmas with his then 10-year-old son.)

Upon his return, he lost his job at the Water Department and had to move with his children into a dilapidated house in the slums of Nairobi.

By the time of his death, things had improved somewhat. He had returned to the Government following Mzee Kenyatta’s death, working in the Ministry of Finance, and had even fathered another son. Yet despite flashes of his old charm, his last years, Auma said, were tinged with bitterness and regret.

For Obama, hearing this utterly unexpected accounting of his father’s life, one that trampled all the myths that his mother and grandparents had woven for him, was unsettling to say the least. “I felt as if my world had been turned on its head; as if I had woken up to find a blue sun in the yellow sky; or heard animals speaking like men.”

When he met Dorsila, the youngest child of his great-great-grandfather Obama, who was in turn the great-great-great grandson of Owiny, the legendary Luo warrior whose armies defeated the Bantu nine generations before the white man came to Kisumu, she was startled when he pulled out a Bic to light his cigarette.

“She wants to know where the fire comes from,” Auma explained. “She says that things are changing so fast it makes her head spin. She says that the first time she saw a television, she (thought) the people inside the box were very rude, because when she spoke to them they never answered back.”

They were all sitting under a mango tree outside the house his father had built for his grandmother, one storey, with crumbling concrete walls and a corrugated-tin roof, bougainvillea abloom all around and chickens pecking at the bare ground.

On a wall inside the house in Kogelo, a village about 50 miles north of the equator and near the shores of Lake Victoria — where just a few generations previously the clan existed as their people had for hundreds of years, living in a family compound, wearing nothing but goatskin loin clothes, raising goats and planting corn — hung his father’s doctorate diploma from Harvard University.

Dorsila, who spoke only Luo, listened nonetheless as Obama and Auma’s “Granny”, the same step-grandmother, now in her eighties, who Senator Obama and his wife and children met with in the summer of 2006, shared the oral history of their family.

“First there was Miwiru. It’s not known who came before. Miwiru sired Sigoma, Sigoma sired Owiny ...” She spoke in the cadence of Genesis, eventually tracing Miwiru’s descendants forward 13 generations to the future United States Senator Obama.

“When your grandfather was still a boy,” she said, “we began to hear that the white man had come to Kisumu Town. It was said that these white men had skin as soft as a child’s, but that they rode on a ship that roared like thunder and had sticks that burst with fire.”

Obama listened spellbound, much as his ancestors had when they gathered around the fire to listen to the wise elders or to itinerant harpist-poets as they “sang of great deeds of the past.”

Rule by gun
But Granny’s oral history was not of heroic deeds but of the wrenching change brought by the British, whose rule by gun and tax collector destroyed the Luo’s ancient way of life in the span of a single generation.

Obama’s grandfather was among the first of his clan to adopt the white man’s ways — trading his loincloth for suits and shoes, learning to speak, read and write English — only to wind up embittered and broken after a lifetime of servitude to his colonial masters.

From Granny, Obama learned that the father who had abandoned him had been himself abandoned, at age nine, by his mother, and as a teenager beaten bloody and banished from home by his father for his rebellious spirit.

Despite his stellar grades, he was expelled from a mission school — “He would sneak girls into his dormitory,” Granny said, “for he could always talk very sweetly to girls” — and when he was arrested and jailed for his involvement in the independence movement, his father refused to bail him out.

Obama learned from his grandmother how his father was released soon after, but by age 20 his dreams and ambitions to get the education he needed to create a better life had disappeared. He was married, with a son and a daughter — Auma — on the way, working at a menial job in Nairobi, and had no hope of ever achieving the bright future in an independent Kenya that he’d always imagined.

Instead he would remain mired in poverty, stooped like his own father by despair and bitterness.

But then a chance meeting with two American educators living in Nairobi changed his life. They befriended him and, impressed by his bright mind and engaging manner, promised to help him get into a university if he completed a correspondence course for a secondary degree.

Obama’s father did as they suggested, passed the course, and proceeded to write dozens of letters to colleges and universities in America.

When Granny finished her story, she showed Obama copies of more than 30 letters, each with recommendations from his two American friends, that his father had written to schools in the United States and sent overseas.

Those letters were “like messages in a bottle,” Obama thought later in reverie as he stood beside his father’s unmarked grave at the rear of his grandmother’s compound in Kogelo.

“How lucky he must have felt when his ship came sailing in! He must have known, when that (acceptance) letter came from Hawaii, that he had been chosen after all; that he possessed the grace of his name, the baraka, the blessing of God.”

As he stood there beside the grave, he felt that he knew and understood — and forgave — his father for the first time in his life. His father had not succumbed to despair.

He had the audacity to hope. And for the first time, his son wept for him.


ross.o said...

Thanks for setting this straight. Some people are confused.

Amkeni Ndugu Zetu! said...

Welcome, Ross. I always aim to be as pragmatic as possible.