AFRICANGLOBE – Before the bottle took its toll of him, Barack Obama Senior was a man destined for greatness.
“He was a very jolly man, very cantankerous, arrogant but nice,” recalls veteran journalist Phillip Ochieng, who was with him in the United States; they stayed close upon their return to Kenya in the early 1960s.
Always impeccably dressed, the Harvard-trained Obama Sr had settled in Nairobi after leaving his American wife and child, the current US President Barack Obama Jr.
It was his position as a senior economist that allowed him to throw his weight around after taking several shots of Black Label whisky. His friends called him “Double-Double” for the double tots he always ordered.
“That’s what he loved most…for us who knew him, we could stand his arrogance and exuberance. But he was ridiculous and irritating to those who did not know him,” recalls Ochieng who shared fine Scotch whisky with him on several occasions at Sans Chic in Nairobi.
Born Barack Hussein Obama on April 4, 1936 in Kogelo, Siaya County, the elder Obama would have turned 79 some three months ago. In his circle of friends, he stood tall, was loud and opinionated. This charmed the many girls who fell for his booming baritone voice and ingenuity.
Even to his friends, it was not clear what led to his heavy drinking. The only pointers were that the once ebullient economist was frustrated at the Ministry of Finance because of incessant corruption and tribalism. He was also going through marital problems.
Obama Sr’s blithe lifestyle started at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, where he was the first African to be admitted. At only 23, he had arrived in the US thanks to a scholarship he secured through an American woman he had met in Mombasa.
Unlike the 81 students who had been airlifted to the US with the assistance of businessman William Scheinman, former baseball star Jackie Robinson, singer Harry Belafonte and Hollywood actor Sidney Poitier, Obama Sr was not part of the 1959 Tom Mboya-organised airlift.
Although he was a good friend of Tom Mboya, Obama Sr was on a partial scholarship from a fund set up by Jackie Robinson. He had arrived at the university with lots of vigour and with strong recommendations.
Records at his Maseno School, written by headteacher B.L. Bowers, describe him as “very keen, steady, trustworthy and friendly. Concentrates, reliable and outgoing.”
It was his outgoing nature that would see him meet a Kansas girl, Ann Dunham, in 1959, the same year he arrived at Hawaii. They dated, fell in love and married in February 1961 and had a son, Barack Obama.
Some of these marriages, as Ochieng recalls in his authorised biography, Fifth Columnist, “were a result of genuine love…others were a result of merely the desire for the exotic experience.”
Ochieng also left an American wife and daughter.
All this time, Obama Sr never mentioned his Kenyan wife, Kezia, and her baby Malik. Kezia had also been left pregnant with their daughter, Auma, who was born when Obama Sr was in Hawaii.
As the only African student in Hawaii, Obama was noticeable. “He was tall, loud, charismatic, opinionated,” recalls Neil Abercrombie, a US Congressman, in a published interview. “When he came into a room, you knew it right away. He had a big heart and a brilliant, brilliant mind.”
Obama Sr graduated top of his class and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in acknowledging his academic prowess. As a result, he secured a scholarship to the prestigious Harvard University to pursue a master’s degree.
He left his wife in Hawaii in June 1962. In published interviews, family members say this was a tough choice: Either pass up the chance to attend one of the most prestigious universities or stay in Hawaii.
The junior Obama, in his book, Dreams from My Father, claims that racism on both sides of the family destroyed the marriage between his mother and father. While Ann’s mother despised a Black son-in-law, Obama Sr’s father “didn’t want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman.”
But in a letter Obama Sr wrote to Tom Mboya in May, 1962, he does not mention his American family and the nine-month old Barack Obama, who was born on August 4, 1961.
He tells Mboya: “You know my wife in Nairobi there and I would really appreciate any help you may give her. She is staying with her brother Wilson Odiawo.”
But in an interview with Time, Auma recalls her father was always talking about Obama.
“We knew I had a brother in America. My father used to call him Barry, we all called him Barry… And my father and his mother were in touch, so she would send his school reports to my father because my father was a very keen advocate of education. She would send photos, so I had photos of Barack.”
Obama Sr abandoned his quest for a PhD and returned home in 1964 after earning a master’s degree.
“He didn’t know how to defend himself against the many demands made on him. His sense of duty toward the larger Obama family was very strong. But the reverse was unfortunately not always the case,” wrote Auma Obama in her book, Then Things Happened.
Although a brilliant economist, Obama Sr had a troubled life. “He was a brilliant guy,” Obama told biographer David Mendell, “but in so many ways, his life was a mess.”
Obama returned to Nairobi in 1964, the same year Dunham filed for divorce. He never contested it, because by this time he was dating a 27-year-old nursery school teacher, Ruth Beatrice Baker, the daughter of wealthy Lithuanians.
Ruth followed Obama to Nairobi, without knowing about either Dunham or Kezia. She was soon to become Obama Sr wife number three.
By now polygamous, Obama Sr sired two more children with Kezia and had two children with Ruth.
It was Ruth who bore the brunt of Obama Sr’s fall. “Barack’s father was a very difficult man. Although I was married to him the longest of any of his wives, he wasn’t an easy person to be around,” she once remarked. They separated in 1971 and divorced in 1973.
Ruth’s eldest son, the China-based Stanford-educated Mark Obama Ndesanjo, recalls the brutality and alcoholism of his father.
He told Barack Obama in his Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance: “At a certain point, I made a decision not to think about who my real father was. He was dead to me even when he was still alive. I knew that he was a drunk and showed no concern for his wife or children. That was enough.”
Later in his own autobiographical novel titled Nairobi to Shenzhen: A Tale of Love In The East, Ndesanjo describes his father as an abusive drunk who repeatedly beat him and his mother after arriving home from drinking sprees.
Writing in the third person, he says: “There were some thumps as of someone falling… He didn’t remember what they were fighting about, but his stomach felt sick and empty… his mother was being attacked and he couldn’t protect her.
“You bastard!” he remembered her screaming out. And that was just one night. There were many more.”
Ruth was forced to get a restraining order, according to Mark in his second 2013 autobiography An Obama’s Journey, and for that his father returned home and held a knife to his mother’s throat.”
It was during this period in 1971 that Obama Sr returned to Hawaii and met his then 10- year-old son, the current US president. It was also their last meeting.
A picture taken at the Honolulu Airport shows Obama Sr in a dark suit and red tie smiling, his arm around Obama’s shoulder. It is not clear why he had returned to Hawaii at a time he was facing a separation suit from Ruth.
Back in the office, Obama Sr had grown critical of the Kenyatta government, and for that he was sidelined. In a paper he penned in 1965 for the East African Journal, Obama wrote a harsh critique of the Mboya-Kibaki engineered Sessional Paper No. 10, which laid the basis of the country’s economic policy.
While the Sessional Paper rejected the classic Marxist philosophy then embraced by the Soviet Union and some European countries, it argued that centralised planning should define common farming lands to maximise productivity and should defer to tribal traditions instead of hastening individual land ownership.
It was this brash personality and loud-mouth nature that saw him sink into alcoholism and deeper into disillusionment and despair. The whisky-fuelled rages, brutality and drunk-driving became his signature.
In one car accident, he lost both his legs. But that did not stop him from more drinking and more road rage.
“He was excessively fond of Scotch. He had fallen into the habit of going home drunk every night. His boasting proved his undoing and left him without a job, plunged him into prolonged poverty and dangerously wounded his ego,” recalled Philip Ochieng in a published interview.
Another acquaintance, Walter Ochoro, told Time magazine: “Senior had no use for diplomatic niceties; people didn’t like meeting him… He had no time for mediocrity and stupidity. He’d spare you no time.”
But in all that, he was proud of the son he called Barry. He kept a black-and-white picture of his son, which he would proudly display.
On the night of November 24, 1982, while still working on a plan to revitalise Nairobi’s transport system, Obama Sr left for Kaloleni to drink with friends. He then left for home. On the way, he crashed into the stump of a giant gum tree and died on the spot.
“We found him sitting by the steering wheel. (The car) did not roll. So after it was said that he had hit the tree, we just had to believe it, because he could not talk back. We really didn’t believe it was a real accident. Because his body was never broken, his vehicle was not badly crushed. He was just dead after the accident. Not even much blood was seen,” Sarah Obama is quoted in The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
, a book by Firstbrook, detailing Obama’s life before he became president.
The junior Obama did not attend his father’s burial but returned in 1987 and again in 2003.
His return to Kenya today as president of the US is symbolic. He has said as much.
By: John Kamau