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Obama’s father was plagued by fears after Mboya’s death

Wednesday November 5 2008

Mr Pake Zane (right), a friend of Obama Sr.

Mr Pake Zane (right), a friend of Obama Sr. They attended the University of Hawaii together. Photo/ALPHAYO OTIENO  

Has it ever occurred in anyone’s imagination that the assassins of Labour minister Thomas Joseph Mboya would have also wanted to eliminate the man who would gain the global limelight posthumously as the father of the first ever formidable Black presidential candidate in the United States?

Details gathered from a series of interviews with Barack Obama Sr’s confidants in the US reveal that at some point of his life, the controversial yet brilliant man claimed that Mboya’s killers also “had me in their list of targets”.

As an ardent critic of former President Jomo Kenyatta, Obama Sr believed that he was in the Government’s bad books for his voluble criticism of the style of governance in post-independent Kenya.

Pake Zane, who was with Obama Sr at the University of Hawaii, says: “Obama told me that he strongly believed that the people who killed Mboya were the same ones who had hit him (Obama) with a car and left him for the dead a few years before Mboya died.”

Wonderful voice

In describing his Kenyan friend, Zane, who now runs an antiques shop a few miles from the university says: “Obama Sr was handsome in his own way. But the most impressive thing was his voice; his voice and his inflection.

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“He had this Oxford accent – you heard a little Kenyan English, but more this British accent with this really deep, mellow voice that just resounded. If he said something in the room and the room was not really noisy, everybody stopped and turned around. I mean he just had this wonderful, wonderful voice. He was charismatic as a speaker.”

The 66-year-old Chinese Hawaiian speaks of Obama Sr as a careerist who was ultimately consumed by alcohol and women.

“I see very little that he shared with his son Obama Jr, if not for the intellect and a driving ambition,” says Zane, who recalls the man as exhibiting an equal share of charm and arrogance.

Even though it is never mentioned in his son’s book, “Dreams From My Father”, Obama Sr, according to his comrades, may have had his fate sealed when he agreed to testify before the commission that looked into the killing of Mboya.

Whereas his decline was fast and tragic, it is the veil of mystery that still clouds Obama Sr that has not been discussed in public domains.

According to press accounts at that time, the elder Obama did not handle his political exile well while in the United States as a student. A variety of microfilmed newspaper cuttings show that he was involved in a series of car crashes, often involving drunk-driving.

Like his son, Obama, Zane says, bridled with the enthusiasm to help shape the destiny of Africa.

“My memories are vivid of him jabbing his ubiquitous pipe in the air for emphasis and telling us how he would return to help better govern his country, Kenya.”

Besides his elegant style of dressing, Obama Sr, recalls Richard Hook, who worked with him as a development adviser for Harvard University’s Institute for International Development in Kenya, had a deep resonant base with a timbre you could not forget.

Outsize persona

It was not just the voice, says Neil Abercrombie, who went on to become a congressman from Honolulu, but Obama’s entire outsize persona -- the lanky 6-foot-1 frame, the horn-rimmed glasses, the booming laugh, the pipe and an “incredibly vital personality.” He was “brilliant and opinionated”.

“Those who scantily understood him were in for a shock. He would have no patience for idiocy and spoke his mind in politic or not. Obama Sr spoke his mind even to the point that he was quite discourteous,” says Hook.

Richard, who, like most of his friends, still pronounces Barack as “Bear-ick” – with the accent on the first syllable – unlike the younger Obama’s “Buh-rock” recalls how Obama Sr intrigued them with the events in Africa from the university snack bar to the Stardust Lounge or George’s Inn.

As they listened to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on the hi-fi, Obama pontificated on Kenya, nationalism and colonialism and his fears about what might happen.

Personal life

“He was very concerned that tribalism would trump nationalism,” Neil Abercrombie says. “And that people like himself would not be properly recognised or fully utilised, and there would be discrimination and prejudice.”

So proud was the son of a cook and a village elder from Kogelo in Alego that sometimes, according to Hook, he introduced himself as Dr Obama, even though he never completed his doctorate.

The man who had three wives and many girlfriends, according to his friends, had a lot of grey areas in his personal life.

In his son’s memoirs, his daughter, Auma Obama, admits that “my dad’s life was scattered and we only knew scraps and pieces of it”.
Obama Jr’s memoir reads like a painful story of a young man in search of a father; culminating in him weeping next to his father’s grave in Alego, Siaya District.

The book is mute about a number of issues but an interview with his close associates shows that the man who bubbled intellect also had a sharp eye for girls early in life.

In 1959, when he boarded the Britannia aircraft for the US, Obama was 23 and already married to a woman named Kezia, with whom he had one child and another on the way. He was among 81 young Kenyans selected to travel on the first of three “airlifts” to American universities.

Although Hawaii had a somewhat diverse cultural mix in the 1960s, there were very few African Americans on the streets of Honolulu by then, according to Zane, who says that Obama was the first “real” Black he ever met.

Opinionated emissary

He says a lot of people were eager to meet the young Obama Sr, who was seen as an “enthusiastic, high-spirited, opinionated emissary from Africa.”

“He hardly shied from the spotlight. He addressed churches and community groups on race and politics. He chided the local newspaper for its position on the Congo, suggesting in a letter to its editorial writers, that ‘maybe you needed more first hand information.’”

In a 1959 interview with the Honolulu Star, in microfilmed archives, Obama described the absence of racial prejudice in Hawaii as “unique”. No one,” he marvelled, “seems to be colour conscious.”

After some time in Honolulu, Obama Sr began appearing with a young white girl, Ann Dunham, whom he had met at a Russian language class in African student social gatherings.

During his time in Hawaii, the elder Obama seemed adept at walling off various aspects of his life. He eventually told Ann about a marriage in Kenya but said he was divorced, which she would discover years later was a lie.

Zane says that Ann listened keenly and was hardly involved in Obama’s discussions with his friends. He never bothered to draw her into his discussions.

For any woman he was in a relationship with, “she was in his life, he was not particularly in hers,” says Zane.

He never told his friends that he had a wife and two children in Africa.

In 1961 they moved to Maui and this was the prelude to the second Barack Obama, the hapa (half caste).

In the fall of 1962, Obama arrived in Cambridge and rented an apartment in a rooming house in the shadow of Central Square, which soon became known as the hangout for African students.

Mr Double Double

Paul Nyangani, Tom Mboya’s uncle, recalls that whenever newcomers arrived from Kenya, they were assured a night in Obama’s apartment, as well as information about life in the United States.

Madelyn Dunham, grandmother to Obama Jr, has steadfastly declined requests for interviews this year, but a few years ago she talked to the Chicago Tribune’s David Mendell, who was researching his biography, “Obama: From Promise to Power.”

Dunham, known for her practicality and scepticism in a family of dreamers, told Mendell that Ann had always been stubborn and nonconformist and often did startling things, but none was more stubborn or surprising than her relationship with Obama Sr.

When Mendell pressed her about Obama, she said she did not trust the stories the Kenyan told. Prodding further, the interviewer heard that Obama had “a great deal of charm” and that “his father had been a medicine man.”

“She raised her eyebrows and nodded to herself,” Mendell wrote of Madelyn. “He was . . .” she said with a long pause, “strange.” She lingered on to emphasise “straaaaaange.”

Those who went out with him like veteran Kenyan journalists, Leo Odera Omolo and Philip Ochieng’, have disclosed that Obama Sr earned himself the nickname “Mr Double Double” from the bar counter, thanks to his way of alerting the waiter to add his Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch whenever he was done with a round.