Unravelling my Kenyan inheritance

Fri, Jan 16, 2009, 00:00

In 1988, Barack Obama went to Kenya to discover his roots, meet members of his family there and, as he puts it in his memoir Dreams From My Father, come to terms with the Old Man, the title of endearment he and his half-sister, Auma, apply to their late father, Barack senior.

Explaining his journey writing in Dreams, Obama looked at his life and, “stripped of language, stripped of work and routine – stripped even of the racial obsessions to which I’d become so accustomed and which I had taken (perversely) as a sign of my own maturation – I had been forced to look inside myself and had found only a great emptiness there”.

He flew first to Europe but he was ill at ease there. “It wasn’t that Europe wasn’t beautiful; everything was just as I’d imagined it. It just wasn’t mine.”

Arriving in Nairobi, Obama was met by Auma and another half-sister, Zeituni, a step-mother and several other half-brothers and half-sisters. He spent time exploring the city, eating, drinking, going on a safari and learning about the trials and tribulations of his, up until then, distant African family.

Eventually, he travelled to Kisumu, on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya, and 30 miles farther west to a village named Nyang’oma Kogelo, the Obama family seat and home to Sarah Onyango Obama, his paternal step-grandmother, referred to in Dreamsas Granny.

WE ARRIVED in Kisumu at daybreak and walked the half mile to the bus depot. It was crowded with buses and matatus [privately-run minibus taxis] honking and jockeying for space in the dusty open-air lot, their fenders painted with names like “Love Bandit” and “Bush Baby”. We found a sad-looking vehicle with balding, cracked tires that was heading our way. Auma boarded first, then stepped back out, looking morose.

“There are no seats,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” [half-brother] Roy [also known as Malik Obama] said as our bags were hoisted up by a series of hands to the roof of the bus. “This is Africa, Auma . . . not Europe.” He turned and smiled down at the young man who was collecting fares. “You can find us some seats, eh, brother?”

The man nodded. “No problem. This bus is first-class.”

An hour later Auma was sitting on my lap, along with a basket of yams and somebody else’s baby girl . . .

We got off in Ndori and spent the next two hours sipping on warm sodas and watching stray dogs snap at each other in the dust, until a matatu finally appeared to take us over the dirt road heading north . . . Then the road widened and we finally stopped at a clearing. Two young men were sitting there, under the shade of a tree, and their faces broke into smiles as they saw us. Roy jumped out of the matatu to gather the two men into his arms.

“Barack,” Roy said happily, “these are our uncles. This is Yusuf,” he said, pointing to the slightly built man with a mustache. “And this,” he said, pointing to the larger, clean-shaven man, “this is our father’s youngest brother, Sayid.”

“Ah, we have heard many great things about this one,” Sayid said, smiling at me. “Welcome, Barry. Welcome. Come, let me have your bags. . .”

“Eh, Obama!” A big woman with a scarf on her head strode out of the main house drying her hands on the sides of her flowered skirt. She had a face like Sayid’s, smooth and big-boned, with sparkling, laughing eyes. She hugged Auma and Roy as if she were going to wrestle them to the ground, then turned to me and grabbed my hand in a hearty handshake.

“Halo!”, she said, attempting English.

“Musawa!” I said in Luo.

She laughed, saying something to Auma.

“She says she has dreamed about this day, when she would finally meet this son of her son. She says you’ve brought her a great happiness. She says that now you have finally come home.”

Granny nodded and pulled me into a hug before leading us into the house. Small windows let in little of the afternoon light, and the house was sparsely furnished – a few wooden chairs, a coffee table, a worn couch. On the walls were various family artifacts: the Old Man’s Harvard diploma; photographs of him and of Omar, the uncle who had left for America twenty-five years ago and had never come back. Beside these were two older, yellowing photographs, the first of a tall young woman with smoldering eyes, a plump infant in her lap, a young girl standing beside her; the second of an older man in a high-backed chair. The man was dressed in a starched shirt and a kanga; his legs were crossed like an Englishman’s, but across his lap was what appeared to be some sort of club, its heavy head wrapped in an animal skin. His high cheekbones and narrow eyes gave his face an almost Oriental cast. Auma came up beside me.

“That’s him. Our grandfather. The woman in the picture is our other grandmother, Akumu. The girl is Sarah. And the baby . . . that’s the Old Man.”

I studied the pictures for some time, until I noticed one last picture on the wall. It was a vintage print, the kind that grace old Coca Cola ads, of a white woman with thick dark hair and slightly dreamy eyes. I asked what the print was doing there, and Auma turned to Granny, who answered to Luo.

“She says that this is a picture of one of our grandfather’s wives. He told people that he had married her in Burma when he was in the war.”

Roy laughed. “She doesn’t look very Burmese, eh, Barack?” I shook my head. She looked like my mother.

We sat down in the living room and Granny made us some tea. She explained that things were well . . . Her only real problems were with the roof of the house – she pointed to a few threads of sunlight that ran from the ceiling to the floor – and the fact that she hadn’t heard anything from her son Omar in over a year. She asked if I had seen him, and I had to say no. She grunted something in Luo, then started to gather up our cups.

“She says when you see him, you should tell him she wants nothing from him,” Auma whispered. “Only that he should come visit his mother.”

I look at Granny, and for the first time since our arrival, her age showed on her face.

After we unpacked our bags, Roy gestured for me to follow him out into the backyard. At the edge of a neighboring cornfield, at the foot of a mango tree, I saw two long rectangles of cement jutting out of the earth like a pair of exhumed coffins. There was a plaque on one of the graves: HUSSEIN ONYANGO OBAMA, B. 1895. D. 1979. The other was covered with yellow bathroom tiles, with a bare space on the headstone where the plaque should have been. Roy bent down and brushed away a train of ants that marched along the length of the grave.

“Six years,” Roy said. “Six years, and there’s still nothing to say who is buried here. I tell you now, Barack – when I die, you make sure that my name is on the grave.” He shook his head slowly before heading back toward the house . . .

Tomorrow: Barack Obama’s thoughts on his own extraordinary journey: his subsequent life at Harvard, his marriage and why, at the end of its all, he felt “like the luckeyest man alive”.