He has been hailed as the personification of the American Dream, but some people see him as an egomaniac who only had himself to blame for his downfall
WORDS FRANKLIN AWORI
WORDS FRANKLIN AWORI
America today is enthralled by the oratorical prowess of Barack Obama, the youthful Illinois senator carrying the Democratic Party's flag during the presidential elections. If elected, he will become the first black president of the world's leading economic powerhouse. He is constantly being scrutinised and written about in this groundbreaking run-up.
Unknown to many, however, is the story of his father, Barack Hussein Obama, a man who apparently lived before his time, was highly educated and brilliant, but whose unconventional life ended tragically after a series of misfortunes. Yet in his bestseller Dreams From My Father, Obama praises the man who inspired him to pursue politics.
In a classic rags-to-riches tale, Obama Senior, the son of a Kenyan peasant, emerged from the impoverished Kogelo village in Alego and became a Harvard-educated economist.
Throughout his life, he battled racial prejudice, anger about his interracial relationship and corruption in his homeland, but despite these trials, argue some, he spearheaded the struggle to decolonise Africa.
Back home, however, many people say Obama Senior was a long way away from being an iconic figure. Veteran journalist Philip Ochieng', who writes for The East African, portrays him as an egomaniac who only had himself to blame for his downfall.
Ochieng' writes that although Obama Senior was charming, generous and extraordinarily clever, he was also imperious, cruel and given to boasting about his intelligence and his wealth.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
In 1959, at the age of 23, Obama Senior was among a few bright students, including Ochieng', who had been selected to study in America through the student airlift programme organised by Thomas Joseph Mboya, one of Kenya's independence heroes and one-time Minister for Economic Affairs. He had impressed leaders of the Kenyan independence movement with his keen interest in economics and politics.
In Dreams From My Father, Obama Junior writes that his father was selected to attend university in order "to master Western technology and bring it back to forge a new, modern Africa".
Obama Senior then headed for Hawaii, leaving behind his pregnant wife Kezia and their baby son.
While studying in Hawaii, he became smitten with Ann Dunham, a young white woman from Kansas, whom he married shortly thereafter. Barack Obama Junior was born in August 1961.
According to Prof Frederick Okatcha, an educational psychology lecturer at Kenyatta University, who was studying at Yale (one of America's Ivy League colleges - so-called because entry is only for top students), America was still very segregated at the time. It took a lot of guts for a black man, whom Obama Junior describes as "pitch black" to marry a white girl from Kansas.
At 26, after graduating top of his class in econometrics, he transferred to Harvard in New York, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Again, he left behind a wife and a child.
For a simple Kenyan from a simple Kenyan village to be admitted to Harvard was in itself a great achievement - even more so in the 60s. "Kenyans at Harvard were countable at that time, probably two or three," says Prof Okatcha.
It was at Harvard that Obama Senior made a name for himself as an intellectual. He was studying econometrics, which Okatcha describes as "pure economics", because it involves mathematics and requires a bright mind.
His friends and documented works reveal that he was a brilliant economist, although there is little evidence that he used this knowledge and brilliance to much effect after leaving the US.
OBAMA JNR'S MEMOIRS
Obama Junior wrote in his memoirs about his parents' meeting and wedding: "In a Russian language course, he met an awkward, shy American girl, only 18, and they fell in love. The girl's parents, wary at first, were won over by his charm and intellect. In many parts of the South, my father could have been strung up in a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way,"says Obama Junior.
"Even in the more sophisticated northern cities, the hostile stares and whispers might have driven a woman in my mother's predicament into a back alley abortion.
"I carried a single image of my father, one that I sometimes rebelled against, but never questioned, one that I had tried to take as my own. The brilliant scholar, the generous friend, the upstanding leader - my father had been all of those things," Obama Junior says of the father who deserted him as a two-year-old.
As Obama Junior grew older, his interest in his biological father increased and he sought to understand the man he called 'father', but who was a complete foreigner to him.
One of the things he sought to know was why his father had abandoned them in Hawaii. "It wasn't your father's fault that he left, you know," his mother, Ann, told him. "I divorced him."
But doing the 'right thing' did not automatically gain the couple their parents' acceptance. Obama Junior explains in the book how his grandfather in Kenya wrote a long, nasty letter saying he did not approve of the marriage, nor did he want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman.
While in his stay in New York, Obama Senior acquired a taste for the finer things in life. His social life revolved around a popular student hangout called the West End bar on Broadway Avenue, says Okatcha.
Like several other Kenyan students, he became a regular there. But unlike the others, who would order regular beer and American bourbon, Obama Senior drank the more expensive Budweiser beer and Scotch whisky, which was a symbol of status among students.
He would walk in, hoist himself up onto a high seat and order his favourite drink. He would then sip this quietly, adjusting his black-rimmed spectacles, which gave him the look of a serious academic. At intervals, he would dig out a cigarette, light up and take long drags, blowing rings up towards the ceiling, remembers Okatcha. He also recalls that offering Obama Senior a drink came at a cost. If asked, "What will you have?"Obama would reply in his booming voice, "A double Scotch whisky."
"If you asked him,'With what'?" says Okatcha laughing,"He would reply "With another double Scotch whisky.'"
Ochieng' agrees that Obama Senior was excessively fond of Scotch. The two had first met in Tom Mboya's office in Nairobi, and went on to become drinking buddies.
Apart from his booming voice, today echoed in that of Senator Obama, he was noticeable for his sharp dress sense and style. "He was always in a suit and a tie, even at the bar," says Okatcha.
"He had personality and self-confidence. The fact that he was brilliant and well-educated meant he had everything [with which] to impress the girls, despite a different cultural background."
At his home in Kogelo, villagers also remember a sharply-dressed man who was rumoured to have lived and worked in America. "He was a city man and most of us just saw him a few times," says a villager, Francis Otieno, 69. "He would have been long forgotten were it not for the son."
Obama Senior's critics argue that his egocentric behaviour can be attributed to American acculturation that gave him a taste for the high life.
Returning to Kenya in the mid 60s, Obama Senior was employed by an oil company. He later served as an economist in the newly independent government. Last year, the Daily Mail in London reported that he became "prosperous with a flashy car and a good salary". But he was unable to find an avenue for his intellectual energy, and his frustration soon became evident when he increasingly turned to whisky for consolation.
Over the next couple of years, his life became a downward spiral of personal and career disappointments, that ultimately cost him his job and led to his death.
Senator Obama writes in his book that his father lost his civil service job after campaigning against corrupt African politicians. It is possible that the key to Obama Senior's fall from grace lies in an essay he wrote in 1965. The essay takes a critical look at the Kenyatta government's economic policy. A move, analysts say, that placed him in direct conflict with President Kenyatta.
Okatcha believes that Obama Senior was too open-minded and liberal to fit into the rigid and bureaucratic government system.
Others, however, like Ochieng', say boasting proved to be Obama Senior's undoing. "He [Obama Senior] said there was tribalism in it, and that left him without a job, plunged him into prolonged poverty and dangerously wounded his ego."
Okatcha would occasionally bump into him at the United Kenya Club, near the University of Nairobi. "He sat at the bar counter with a Scotch, just like he did in the US," says Okatcha. "He probably would have been better off in academia or in the private sector where people are more open and free to experiment with ideas."
His third wife, Ruth, was an American-born teacher, whom he had met at Harvard while still legally married to both Kezia and Ann. It is alleged that she left him after enduring his repeated whisky-fuelled rages and brutal beatings. According to friends, drinking blighted Obama Senior's life: he lost both his legs in a car accident while driving under the influence of alcohol.
Obama was often accused of arrogance, but Okatcha disagrees.
"He would listen carefully to your arguments and then tear into you with facts and figures," says Okatcha. "He could be very forthright and that could be annoying to some people."
Other acquaintances, however, say Obama Senior had no time for people without ideas, and that may be where the issue of his arrogance and boisterousness arose. He was a typical technocrat who believed in providing brains for a system.
"The determination and hard work is certainly a feature [the] senator has inherited from his father," Obama's grandmother, Sarah Obama, observes.
Obama Senior ended up with three wives - two Americans and one Kenyan - and by the age of 46, he had eight children. But after a road accident in Nairobi in 1982, he died a desolate man.
It is only the reflected glory of his son, Senator Barack Obama, that has brought glory to a man whose intellect was muddled in Kenya's post-independence politics and his own human flaws.