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A short history of the US President’s father

Friday February 25 2011

Obama senior with his son, Barack Obama, who is now US President

Obama senior with his son, Barack Obama, who is now US President 

Kenya was in turmoil by mid-1953, as the government tried to suppress the Mau Mau rebellion. A state of emergency had been declared the previous year, and on 25 March 1953, over 120 innocent Kikuyu civilians were slaughtered in the town of Lari.

It was into this maelstrom of events that Barack Obama Snr launched himself into the real world. He had decided that he must leave Maseno school, fearing that he might be linked to (an) anonymous letter sent to the principal. In his fury and disappointment with his son, Hussein Onyango banished him to work in Mombasa. After working briefly as a clerk in another office in Mombasa, Barack moved to Nairobi.

When Barack arrived in Nairobi in 1955, he was 19 years old, and he found a temporary job working for the Kenya Railway. This was still at the height of the Mau Mau emergency, and Nairobi was a hotbed of political action. Barack began to take an interest in politics, and one evening the following year he was attending a Kenya African Union meeting that was raided by the police. He was among those arrested and charged with violating the meeting law.

According to his friend Leo Odera, Barack was released after his white employer in Nairobi gave the authorities reassurance that his social and political activities were unconnected with Mau Mau.

Leo Odera recalled how Barack Snr met his first wife: ‘In Nairobi, Barack Obama Snr became a frequent visitor to his Kanyadhiang’ roots, and here is when he came into contact with two young girls, whom he had known whilst learning at Gendia SDA Mission [primary school]. One of the girls was called Mical Anyango, daughter of Mr Joram Osano, a local pastor.

The other girl was the seventeen-year-old Kezia Nyandega.’


Today, Kezia is a sixty-eight-year-old grandmother living in a modest semi-detached house in Bracknell, a commuter town 25km west of central London.

She remembers clearly the place and day of her first dance with Obama Snr – it was in the local hall in the Obamas’ family compound in Kendu Bay, and the date was Christmas Day 1956: ‘It was at a dance in Kendu Bay, my home town. Barack was there on holiday with his family. I went to the dance hall with my cousin William and I saw Barack enter the room. I thought, “Ohhh, wow!” He was so lovely with his dancing. So handsome and so smart. We danced together and then the next day my cousin came to our house and told me that Barack liked me.’

When Barack Snr went to the railway station in Kisumu to catch the train back to Nairobi in early January 1957, Kezia went with her cousin William to see him off – except that Barack’s smooth talking persuaded Kezia to stay with him, and the two lovers eloped together to Nairobi. Kezia moved into Barack’s apartment in Jericho, a suburb of Nairobi specially created for government employees, but she recalls that her father was furious over what had happened.

Nevertheless, Barack spoke to his father about Kezia, and according to her sister Mwanaisha, Onyango agreed to the wedding.

While Barack Snr was living in Nairobi and becoming more involved in African politics he met Tom Mboya. Mboya was six years older than Obama Snr and a typical Luo: charming, charismatic, intelligent and ambitious; Mboya was also a good dancer, and Barack became his friend and protégé. He was also a leading trade unionist and a rising political star in Kenya.

When Kenyatta was arrested in 1952 during the Mau Mau emergency, it was Mboya who stepped into the political vacuum by accepting the position of treasurer in Kenyatta’s party, the KAU. When the KAU was banned later that year, Mboya, at the age of 23, (was) one of the most powerful and influential Africans in the country.

During the 1950s, university education for Africans remained highly elitist, and Mboya was determined to change the system. In the middle of 1959 he returned from an extensive tour to the USA to announce that he had secured scores of scholarships for young Kenyans to study on American campuses.

Mboya’s initiative became known as the ‘Airlift Africa’ project, and initially it gave eighty-one Kenyan students the opportunity to study at top universities in the USA.

During his time in Nairobi in the mid-1950s, Obama watched as his old school friends from Maseno went on to study at university in Uganda and even London. Sarah Obama claims that two American women befriended him and helped him take a correspondence course, which would give him the school certificate he needed to move on.

One of the women instrumental in Barack’s successful application for a scholarship was Helen Roberts from California, who was living in Nairobi at the time; another was Jane Kiano, the American wife of Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano. Dr Kiano was the first Kenyan to gain a US doctorate (from Stanford University) and he played an important political role in the years running up to Kenyan independence, and also in higher education for Kenyans. Kiano later became closely involved with Mboya in organising the student airlifts to the USA.

When the President’s father left Nairobi in 1959, Kezia was three months pregnant with her second child Auma, and she came to the airport for a tearful parting. When Barack arrived at the University at M-anoa in the summer of 1959 he was just twenty-three years old; he was the first black African student at the university, and inevitably he became the focus of great curiosity on campus. As he started his classes in mathematics and economics in September, he must have reflected how far he had come from a mud hut in K’ogelo.

It was not until the following year that Barack met Ann, the eighteen-year-old freshman student who would become the mother of the 44th President of the United States of America. Ann Dunham had only started attending classes at the university in September 1960, and she and Obama enrolled on the same Russian-language class.

Within a very short time of meeting Ann in September 1960, Obama Snr was dating her – although he did not tell her about Kezia back in Nairobi, nor about his son and newborn daughter.

Even though Hawaii was a racial melting pot in the early sixties, a black man dating a white girl was still something unusual. By November 1960, within weeks of meeting Obama Snr, Ann was pregnant and the couple were married three months later, on 2 February 1961. Even by the easygoing standards of Hawaii in the early sixties, Ann was very young to be married, and their relationship raised alarm on both sides of the family.

Later that semester Ann dropped out of college. Their son, Barack Hussein Obama Jnr, was born at 7.24 p.m. on 4 August 1961.

Obama Snr graduated from the University of Hawaii in the summer of 1962. He was clearly a model student and he was offered two scholarships to work towards a doctorate. He chose to go to Harvard, but the scholarship was not enough for him to take his family to Massachusetts.

Ann stayed behind in Honolulu with their young son and resumed her studies at the university. It proved to be the beginning of the end of their short relationship.

By 1962 Mboya’s airlift was into its third year and Harvard was now home to some of Kenya’s brightest and most ambitious students. One of them was James Odhiambo Ochieng’, a twenty-one-year-old student who arrived in that year:

Barack Obama Snr settled down to a bachelor lifestyle. Tom Mboya had heard that Obama had married again, and he wrote to his old friend, warning him not to abandon his new wife and son; Barack stayed true to his word – at least at first.

In January 1964, Ann Dunham filed for divorce from Barack Obama Snr citing abandonment by her husband. Obama Snr had been partying hard in Boston, and now he had met a young school teacher in her early twenties, Ruth Nidesand. Obama Snr soon moved in with Ruth, and they started a serious relationship. But the talk over beers among the young Kenyan students at Harvard was about what was happening back home.

Since they had come out to study their country had become an independent nation, and there were exciting, new opportunities on offer in Nairobi.

The following year, in 1965, Obama Snr gave up his studies for a PhD and returned home. This was partly from financial hardship, but also because of the new jobs to be had in Kenya. Following independence, many students who were studying overseas returned home to join the scramble for the top government positions in Nairobi – many of which had been vacated by white administrators who had decided to leave Kenya.

Despite leaving his studies early, Obama Snr was later awarded a master’s degree, although he frequently liked to refer to himself as ‘Dr Obama’. Ruth too followed him out to Nairobi, and although Barack was reluctant at first, they soon married.

Obama Snr’s first job in Kenya was as an economist with Shell, but he soon landed a job in the government, working for the Central Bank. It was a prize placement for a young man and it should have been a springboard to greater things. But Obama Snr’s tendency for self-destruction soon began to make itself felt.

In July 1965, the year he returned to Nairobi, he published an article in the East Africa Journal entitled ‘Problems Facing Our Socialism’. It was essentially a critique of ‘Sessional Paper 10’, an influential government paper, which argued for a model of government in Kenya based on African values. In his article, Obama chose to criticise the direction the new Kenyatta government was taking, and its lack of foresight in planning.

His article might have gone down well with his tutors at Harvard, but it was certainly not a very wise thing to write when you are straight out of university, and with no experience in government.

Nevertheless, those early years back in Kenya were good for Obama Snr; he had a first-rate job at the Central Bank, he was paid well, and he was making friends at the very top of government. His old college friend from Boston, James Odhiambo Ochieng’, remembers countless nights out on the town:

‘Obama did one thing – he would order the drinks. He would say, “When I say drink, drink!” He would go and call the waiter, and tell the waiter – “Take [the bill] to Mboya.” And Mboya would take it very easily. He would not only do it to Mboya, he would do it to Odinga. Odinga was someone to reckon with. Odinga would take it. He couldn’t be angry about it. With Obama? Oh no, no, no. He wouldn’t argue.’

At a national level, Kenyan politics was beginning to deteriorate. Oginga Odinga and Kenyatta had always been uncomfortable bedfellows. In March 1966 Oginga quit KANU, resigned from Kenyatta’s government and formed a new left-wing opposition party, the Kenya People’s Union (KPU). Odinga claimed that Kenya was being run by an ‘invisible government’, and for the next three years the KPU insisted that KANU’s policies of ‘African socialism’ were simply a cover for tribalism and capitalism. It was a confrontation which would eventually result in arrest, detention and assassination.

Two months later, on a hot, steamy July day in Nairobi, Barack Obama Snr found himself unwittingly drawn into one of the most momentous events in post-independent Kenya. Tom Mboya had returned the previous day from a meeting in Addis Ababa.

As the July heat began to build up on the streets of Nairobi on the Saturday morning, Mboya arrived at his office at 9.30, in the Treasury Building on Harambee Avenue. At lunchtime he told his driver to go home for the weekend and took his own car to a pharmacy on Government Road (now Moi Avenue) to buy some lotion for his dry skin. Just before 1 p.m., on his way into the shop, he bumped into Obama Snr, who casually joked with Mboya, saying that he should be careful as he had parked his car illegally.

Minutes after the two friends parted, Tom Mboya came out of the store having made his purchase and was confronted by a slight young man wearing a dark suit, holding a briefcase in his left hand. His right hand was in his pocket. Almost immediately, two shots were fired and Mboya fell to the pavement.

Within hours of Mboya’s death, a highly charged crowd tried to force their way into the hospital against the police cordon that had quickly been thrown around the building. Doors and windows were broken and the police resorted to tear gas and clubs to disperse the angry crowd. The entire Kenyan police force was mobilised, roadblocks were set up and patrols were mounted throughout the city and into the suburbs.

As the fortunes of the Luo fell during the late 1960s, so too did those of Barack Obama Snr. As a senior Luo civil servant, he was particularly vulnerable; but now that his friend and mentor Tom Mboya was dead, he became even more exposed, as Leo Odera recalls.

On one occasion, Odera claims, Kenyatta himself called Barack to his offices, to give him a personal warning.

James Odhiambo, Barack’s college friend in Boston, had also returned to work in Nairobi, and he was a regular visitor to the house that Ruth and Barack shared: ‘Obama was, I will use the word “arrogant”. Because of his brightness, he actually felt that people like Duncan Ndegwa [the governor of the Central Bank of Kenya] were stupid, and he felt that he should be the governor! “Ndegwa? Who is Ndegwa? Ndegwa was not learned [educated],” according to him.’

On one occasion, according to Odhiambo, governors from several African banks met up in Nairobi for a banking summit: ‘When he talked to them, he says, “You know, I’m the Governor really, you know.” Oh Barry!’

Obama was fired – it is said that his dismissal was personally sanctioned by Kenyatta. He was devastated over the loss of this job, and his drinking became worse.

Leo Odera also recalls soon after he began to have a problem with his American wife, Ruth.

He had several serious motor accidents, including one in which Leo Odera was involved: ‘He was a very bad driver. He was a drunkard. He had to have one for the road. So [one evening] we took one or two beers and I was sleeping. The first I knew, we were off the road and the dashboard hit my chest.’
Leo Odera told me that Obama Snr had four major accidents, including one in which his good friend Adede Odiero died.

It was after one of his road accidents in 1971 that Obama Snr went back to Hawaii to see his young son. It has frequently been reported that Obama Snr had his legs amputated after one serious accident, but people who knew him say this was not true, although he did, for a while, wear leg irons. When he went to Hawaii just before Christmas in 1971, he was still on crutches, and this was the only occasion that President Obama recalls meeting his father.

The last decade of Barack Obama Snr’s life played out like a Greek tragedy. In his (new) job at the KTDC, Obama Snr was in contact with influential people, many of whom were from overseas, and James Odhiambo recalls that Obama developed a habit of implying that he was rather more senior in the Corporation than was actually the case:

‘That’s Barry Obama. He had to be given his marching orders – that is all that I will say! Because he left. That is when this man really suffered; Barry now suffered a great deal for some time.’

Then, in 1975, Obama suffered another blow. Onyango died later that year.

Barack Obama Snr had reached a crisis in his life, and once again his friends stepped in to help. James Odhiambo remembers that people were very concerned over the consequences if Obama was left unsupported: ‘He was a man of substance, and they could not risk leaving him alone there, bickering and talking a lot of nonsense. They would rather absorb him. So they felt the gentleman must come and work in the Finance Ministry.’

It was here in the Finance Ministry that Obama Snr worked for Mwai Kibaki, who was then Minister of Finance and Economic Planning. (In 2006, when the then Senator Obama visited Kenya, Kibaki was keen to point out that he gave his father this position).

From the mid-1970s Barack continued to work at the Treasury. Ruth and her sons were long gone and Barack remained a bachelor for some time. By 1978 he had met a Luo girl called Jael Otieno, and they married in 1981. She became his fourth wife, although he still remained legally married to Kezia. In the summer of 1982 Jael gave birth to a son, George. Then, on the night of 24 November, Barack Obama Snr reached the end of the road. He had been drinking all evening in a Nairobi bar, as was common in those days. He left alone and drove home. Minutes later his car drove off the road and hit a tree.

On the day that Barack Obama Snr died in Nairobi, a young 21-year- old student at Columbia University in New York was making himself breakfast. The telephone rang, but the line was crackly and the caller indistinct:

‘Barry? Barry, is that you?’

‘Yes. . . . Who’s this?’

‘Yes, Barry . . . this is your Aunt Jane. In Nairobi. Can you hear me?’

‘I’m sorry – who did you say you were?’

With this briefest of calls from a complete stranger, albeit a relative, Barack Obama Jnr was told of the death of his father

Extracted from THE OBAMAS: The Untold Story of an African Family by Peter Firstbrook. Published by Preface. Copyright © Peter Firstbrook 2010.