Thursday, October 23, 2008

Why Barack Obama is his father’s son

A man is the son of his father, so we say out here in Africa. But how much of Barack Obama Senior is in his son, the Democratic nominee for US president? Or just how Kenyan is Sen Obama?

First, he is unequivocally American by birth and upbringing. But his writing, speeches and mannerisms have left little doubt that the Illinois senator is proud of his Kenyan roots.

Why else does he feel compelled to mention it in his major speeches?

In that first famous address at the Democratic national convention that catapulted him onto the national stage, he spoke about his Kenyan father for an entire four minutes. He has done so at every significant event he has to introduce himself: at the first primary victory in Iowa, at his victory over Hillary Clinton in Minnesota, at his nomination acceptance speech in Colorado and at the first presidential debate with John McCain in Mississippi.

It is evident that Obama is acutely conscious of and comfortable with his Kenyan roots. The search for his identity began in his teenage, he writes in Dreams from My Father, when it suddenly occurred to him that everybody around him was either white or with a “proper” American name. It was in college that he decided that he should be called Barack or Obama, not Barry. By this time the impact of an absent father who had long divorced his mother and returned to a tragically unhappy life in Kenya was at its peak. His father’s letters that firmly instructed him to “know his people” tugged at his heart.

The intensity with which Obama tells the story of his first meeting with Auma, his Kenyan half-sister, is startling. Her plane from Germany was about to land in Chicago. “I pulled into the airport parking lot … and ran to the terminal as fast as I could. Panting for breath, I spun around several times, my eyes scanning the crowds… Damn! I knew I should have left earlier … What if she had walked right past me and I hadn’t even known it? I looked down at the photograph in my hand … smudged now from too much handling. Then I looked up, and the picture came to life… I lifted my sister off the ground as we embraced… I picked up her bags and we began to walk … and she slipped her arm through mine. And I knew at that moment that I loved her, so naturally, so easily and fiercely…”

It was Obama’s first encounter with his own flesh and blood from Alego, Kenya. The next telling moment is when he landed at the Nairobi airport for the first time in 1986. A woman at the British Airways desk looked at his passport and asked if he was related to “Dr Obama.” That had never happened before, Obama writes. “For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide… how people might nod and say: ‘Oh, you are so and so’s son.’ No one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name… My name belonged and so I belonged.” The next day while with Auma at a kiosk near Khoja Mosque, he writes, an old woman pointed at him and said in Kiswahili that he looked like an American. Obama, beating his chest, promptly instructed his sister, “Tell her I’m Luo!”

Obama’s narration of his Kenyan experience in the subsequent weeks reveals an impressive understanding of his father’s land: the first supper at aunt Jane’s house at Kariakor; his visit to the Mathare slum with aunt Sarah; his night out with brother Roy at Garden Square; his travel by matatu to Alego and Kendu Bay — his great grandfather’s place where uncles insisted he taste the local brew chang’aa; his diarrhoea attack that his grandfather’s sister insisted to treat with local herbs and bitter roots.

Most poignant in Obama’s narrative is the scene at his father’s grave at Kogelo, Alego. When at 21, his aunt Jane had phoned him in New York to tell him that his father was dead, he had just sat down on the couch, stared at cracks in his college apartment and tried to measure the loss of a father he hardly knew. Four years later, he now sat between the graves of his grandfather and his father, under the mango tree behind his grandmother’s house. “For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept,” he writes. “When my tears were finally spent … I felt the circle finally close. I realised that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation … I saw that my life in America — the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope in Chicago — all of it was connected with this piece of earth an ocean away ... The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brother’s questions. Their struggle, my birthright.”

Sen Obama is his father’s son. It is said that Obama Sr had a driving intellect and ambition; two traits that Auma worries may drive her brother too far. But as the Boston Globe wrote recently, if someone had said to Obama Sr: “You know, your son might be president,” he would have said: ‘Well, of course. He’s my son.’”

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