London Notes: The Other Obama

Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born and educated in Mombasa and in England, practiced law in Nairobi and in England, where now he lives and writes in retirement




The race for the office of President of the United States is clearly well under way. It is a matter of wide concern, because of the global reach of American power, though the rest of the world will have no say in who gets to the White House.

Even so, for Kenyans in particular and Africans in general, the coming American election will resonate for the same reason that the last one in 2008 did. Kenyans were overjoyed with vicarious pride when Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States.  After all he bore the name of his Kenyan father; so Kenya will always be associated with American history right at the top. As if that wasn`t enough, Obama had enshrined this connection in a best-selling autobiography with a catchy title that focused on his father’s legacy, while he was still on the make as a national figure. Now of course Obama is a World Statesman. But despite all expectations and exhortations, in the years he has been President, Barack Obama has eluded making a return visit to Kenya, and as he embarks on a grueling bid to be re-elected for a second term, it is most unlikely that Obama will visit Kenya any time soon

Why?  The answer may lie in the pages of `The Other Barack`, a riveting and lucid biography of the older Obama by Sally H Jacobs of The Boston Globe, published in America last year, with the telling sub-title: “The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama`s Father”. Bold and reckless Obama Senior certainly was but, more than that, he comes across as a deeply flawed character, in stark contrast to the idealism and romantic portrait of him, in his son`s book: `Dreams From My Father`. Is it possible that President Obama wishes to put a distance between him and his late father, not to repudiate his ancestry but to give himself time to reappraise the relationship in the light of what he has gone through and may have learnt in the intervening years!

Obama SeniorObama Senior was an enigma even to his contemporaries.  I knew him slightly in the mid-1960s and wrote about it in a Nairobi magazine in 2010.  My acquaintance with him was as an occasional drinking companion.  Obama Senior was a very private person, who never let anyone get close to him.  But even then it was clear that he was a larger than life figure.  In retrospect, we can only judge him by his actions. These, alas, do not always reflect well on him.

In the very first chapter, Jacobs lays bare the character of `The Old Man` in unambiguous language, in terms of “the skein of lies and half-truths he had woven” about his “chaotic life”. What is revealed, as the book goes on, is not pleasant.  Jacobs points to the somber realization of his father`s shortcomings in President Obama`s `Dreams`. In the book Obama had made the painful discovery that “his father had not been the towering success that he had been led to believe as a child”. Was the old man already a fallen idol?   Had Obama known his father better, might his `dreams` not have turned into a nightmare?

Jacobs has meticulously researched and documented Obama Senior’s complex antecedents and his short and chequered life. What comes across is the older Obama as a dandy and a bombast, who hid his frailties and failures behind a booming voice and an arrogant, intimidating posture. 

It turns out the older Obama’s boasts of academic achievements were hollow.  He never gained the much coveted PhD from Harvard, from where he was forced to leave and return to Kenya prematurely, despite which he styled himself as `Doctor` and claimed to be “one of the best economists in the country”!

His one memorable contribution to public discourse was in the form of an eight-page piece in the East African Journal in 1965 in which he critically challenged the conceptual framework of official Kenyan government paper on `African Socialism and Its Application to Planning in Kenya.`. It was the brainchild of Tom Mboya, who was lining up to be the successor to Kenyatta, in opposition to the left-leaning Vice-President Oginga Odinga.  Obama Senior derided the authors of the document for failing to define African socialism and seeking to perpetuate a neo-colonial agenda dependent on foreign capital and for not addressing the structural socio-economic disparities in the system.  He was thus questioning the wisdom of State policy.  In the then authoritarian atmosphere of Kenya it marked him out as a trouble-maker, and doomed whatever future he may have had. 

His pretensions of a brilliant professional career were an exaggeration. According to Jacobs, he never rose above the level of a middle-ranking bureaucrat.  His employment history was littered with one episode after another of inappropriate behavior.  Following a stint as a Shell executive, his first job after returning to Kenya, he joined the Central Bank of Kenya, only to last for nine months.  Next he got appointed to the Kenya Tourist Development Corporation in a senior position but was fired from that, also.  After a spell of unemployment that cost him both his dignity and purse, he persuaded Mwai Kibaki, currently President of Kenya, then the Minister of Economic Planning, to give him a job at the Ministry.  It was to be his longest and most productive period, and lasted from November 1975 to November 1982, when he died in a predictable car crash, aged 46.

Obama Senior’s life was a catalogue of drunken excess and misadventures, sexual proclivities, financial crises, motor accidents, marital abuse and violence towards his (second) American wife Ruth, misanthropic tendencies and, above all, failure to connect with almost all his children, wives and mistresses on an emotional footing.  If he did struggle with his inner demons, he never let it show. How was it that his early promise and potential remained largely unfulfilled?  

His background provides the clue.  We learn that at age eleven, the older Barack his primary school because he could not suffer to be taught by a woman.  His father had to enroll him in another school, where although he still got into trouble he did well enough to enter the prestigious Maseno High School near Kisumu, where such Kenyan heavy-weights as Oginga Odinga, Grace Ogot and Acheng Oneko had also been students.  As may have been expected, at Maseno the older Obama again got into trouble. The school principal barred him from taking the crucial exam that would have led him to college and beyond. At this point his bitterly disappointed father sent him to Mombasa to find work.

In Mombasa he did not fare well as a junior typist and quarreled with his Arab employer. He next tried his luck in Nairobi, where he had friends from his school days.  Soon he again secured a clerical job, “this time with an Indian law firm”. This was in 1954, when Mau Mau was at its peak. It was during this crucial period that he met Tom Mboya, who was already rising to prominence. The two men would develop a friendship, drawn to one another by their common ethnicity and rapidly developing political passions. They went carousing together in the night clubs of Nairobi.

Obama then managed to get a Cambridge School Certificate and with the help of Elizabeth Mooney, an expatriate American Christian charity worker, got admission to the University of Hawaii and secured funding to go there as part of the airlift of African students organized by Tom Mboya and Dr J Kiano in the fall of 1959. He had by then been married under customary law to his first wife, Grace Kezia.  

It was in Hawaii that he was to meet Ann Dunham and marry her while she was pregnant with their son who was to become the 44th President of the USA.  But Obama Senior left them and moved to Harvard.  Here again, his womanizing got him into trouble and aroused the ire of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service who suspected his marriage to Ann to have been bigamous and told him to leave the country after Harvard University had withdrawn its financial support for him.  And so he had to return to Kenya in July 1964, without completing his PhD.  

This in outline is Obama Senior`s story from humble beginnings to a failed intellectual, failed husband and an absent father. But did he not possess any redeeming qualities?  Yes, he was generous when he had the money, and took his social obligations, especially towards his large extended family, seriously.  His own brother Sayid affirmed this, as noted by the President in his `Dreams` book.

So how much of Obama Senior`s character and personality can be seen reflected in the President?  Based on what is in the public domain and of what we can surmise, the President is a solid, self-possessed, controlled individual who does not display any of the egregious, self-destructive qualities of his father; upon whom the cultural influences of his mother and US upbringing is uppermost. He is the opposite of his father in every respect.

© Ramnik Shah 2012

Extract from his review of the book, The Other Barack , at