What Kenya really means to the American president

Saturday July 25 2015

US President Barack Obama (L) listens to his Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta during a joint press conference after their talks at State House, Nairobi on July 25, 2015. AFP PHOTO | SAUL LOEB

US President Barack Obama (L) listens to his Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta during a joint press conference after their talks at State House, Nairobi on July 25, 2015. AFP PHOTO | SAUL LOEB 

By MURITHI MUTIGA
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You must come home, son. Even if it is only for a few days. This is where you belong.

President Barack Obama’s father was famously absent from his life, visiting him only fleetingly when he was a 10-year-old pupil in junior school.

But this fact only seems to have deepened the young Obama’s curiosity about his father and fed a long search for rootedness which dominated his early years.

Where did he belong? He was neither black nor white. He was an American citizen by birth. But what did it mean that his paternal roots were tens of thousands of kilometres away?

This confusion and desire for self-discovery led Obama to write a letter to his father during his college years. In his note, he passed greetings to the family and informed his dad that he planned to travel to Kenya. Barack Obama Sr. replied urging his son to come where he belongs.

“You will be pleased to know that all your brothers here are fine, and send their greetings. Like me, they approve of your decision to come home after graduation.

When you come, we shall, together, decide on how long you may wish to stay. Barry, even if it is for a few days, the important thing is that you know your people, and also that you know where you belong.”

GOOD REASON

President Obama’s visit to the land of his father’s birth has been one of the most eagerly anticipated trips of his time in the White House — for good reason.

As he narrates in his memoirs, Dreams from my Father, much of his early life was dominated by a search for identity and the confusion of his multi-layered lineage, a “personal, interior journey” which led him to Kenya and which he describes in riveting terms in the book.

When, in 1959, Stanley Ann Dunham, a young social science student met a dashing Kenyan man studying at the University of Hawaii, it was illegal for a black man to date a white woman in half of the states in America.

The civil rights movement was in full swing with figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. fighting to reverse the colossal injustices of slavery and white supremacists battling back ferociously.

Laws like those forbidding any relationships between the races were part of the arsenal of those who sought to prevent progressive change, and Obama notes that his mother was quite brave to defy the societal norms and expectations of that age.

“In many parts of the South, my father could have been strung from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way; in the most sophisticated northern cities, the hostile stares, the whispers, might have driven a woman in my mother’s predicament into a back-alley abortion – or at the very least to a distant convent that could arrange for adoption.”

His parents divorced early in Obama’s life and his dad went on to Harvard and returned to Kenya. His mom did a sterling job of raising him, the young Obama notes, but still he was torn.

Who was he? Where did he truly belong? Early on, he decided to stop telling people his mother’s race because, he writes in the foreword of the second edition of his book, “at the age of twelve or thirteen... I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites”.

To concentrate on his studies, he set aside the swirling thoughts on identity in his mind, concluding wryly, that he had written himself off as a “tragic mulatto” (slang for a person of mixed black and white ancestry).

FATHER'S EYES

Still, Kenya loomed large and he saw himself above all through the lens of his father’s eyes.

“It was into my father’s image, the black man, son of Africa, that I’d packed all the attributes I sought in myself...My father’s voice had nevertheless remained untainted, inspiring, rebuking, granting or withholding approval. You do not work hard enough, Barry. You must help in your people’s struggle. Wake up, black man!”

Fear of what he would discover upon going to Kenya held him back. A turning point was a conversation with a fiery African-American counsellor at a Chicago high school named Asante Moran who, between furious denunciations of the American public school system and the underfunding of schools in black areas, spoke of being enchanted by a visit to Kenya 15 years earlier.

He expressed astonishment that Obama had never visited the land of his fathers and said:

“You know that’s where I went on my first trip to the continent. Kenya — I remember that trip like it was yesterday — changed my life forever. The people were so welcoming. And the land – I’d never seen anything so beautiful. It really felt like I had come home.”

The friend who had accompanied Obama into the meeting with Asante asked Obama why he had never been to Kenya.

He replied, simply: “I don’t know. Maybe I am scared of what I will find there.”

Obama concluded he needed to go back home soon but one of the most crushing moments of his young life came a short while later when he received a call, on a scratchy line in his apartment in New York, with devastating news:

CAR CRASH

It was his aunt, Jane Obama. “Listen, Barry, your father is dead. He is killed in a car accident. Hello? Can you hear me? I say, your father is dead. Barry, please call your uncle in Boston and tell him. I can’t talk now, okay Barry. I will try to call you again...”

Obama would still go home to the land of his father, only that he would not meet the absent man who had dominated his life.

It is easy to see why the American President was determined, as he told university students on his last trip to South Africa, to ensure he returned to Kenya before concluding his time in office.

The time he spent in the country on his visit in 1987 helped him feel a comfort and sense of identity that had eluded him all his years.

He passed through a few European cities including London before travelling to Kenya but was uneasy all the time.

“All through my stay in Europe (I felt) edgy, defensive, hesitant with strangers...and by the end of the first week or so, I realised I had made a mistake. It wasn’t that Europe wasn’t beautiful; everything is just I’d imagined it. It just wasn’t mine.

“I felt as if I were living someone else’s romance; the incompleteness of my own history stood between me and the sites I saw like a hard pane of glass.”

He hastened on to Kenya and the first words he heard, on getting off the plane, were from his aunt Zeituni, who was at the airport with his half-sister, Auma. “Welcome home.”

Obama narrates many stories about his time in Kenya — the trip to a bar in downtown Nairobi where a big brawl broke out, the excursion to Maasai Mara, the adventures in the city starting with the loss of his luggage along the journey to Kenya. But the undoubted highlight was his visit to K’Ogelo, his meeting with his step-grandmother Mama Sarah Obama and his long, short walk to visit his father’s grave. At last, Obama felt, he had found “the comfort, the firmness of identity.”

“It’s obvious if you read his books, if you listen to what he’s said about his own biography,” Bill Burton, a former Obama aide told the New York Times, “Kenya plays a very big role in how he thinks about the world and how he thinks about his relationship with other Americans.”

STRATEGIC TIES

Much of the coverage of the American president’s visit focuses on the strategic ties between Kenya and the US, on the entrepreneurship summit he is attending, on the debate over whether he could have been more engaged with Africa than he has been.

The reality may be that for Obama, Kenya carries a meaning beyond what can be deduced from the arid examination of trade data and the intricacies of diplomatic relations.

All those things are undoubtedly important. But to Obama, Kenya is the land where “through Africa’s red soil” he found himself.

He felt a release, he writes, akin to “a drunk coming out of a long, painful binge” and nowhere more so than during the time he spent crying at his father’s grave-site in the climactic scene of his book.

“When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. 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, no longer a construct of words.

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 I’d witnessed in Chicago — all of it was connected with this small piece of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the colour of my skin. The pain that I felt was my father’s pain.”