The US president’s sibling is proud of him, but has her own story to tell, writes Kate Sidley
I picked up Auma Obama’s book And Then Life Happens anticipating insights and anecdotes about Barack Obama, her famous half-brother, whom she first met as a young adult.
But the more intriguing aspects of this book have little to do with the first black president of the US. The reader is introduced to a complex family navigating the space between a traditional, rural way of life and the modern Western world, at a time in Kenya when colonialism was a fairly recent memory. Auma’s own journey encompassed a Kenyan village, suburban Nairobi, a British-style boarding school and university in Germany, before coming full circle, back to her Kenyan roots.
Identity and family are the themes that play out in this memoir, which has just been published in English, after originally being written in German. Auma explains: “A good part of my adult life was spent in Germany and it was in German that I learnt the vocabulary around identity, culture and women’s rights.”
The book tells the story of Auma and the complexities of her extended family. Barack Obama’s father left his first wife Kezia and their two young children, Auma and her older brother Abongo, in Kenya and took up a scholarship in Hawaii. There he met and married Ann Dunham.
Unwilling to leave her work to follow her husband to Africa, Dunham brought up their son Barack in the US. A third wife, Ruth, did follow her husband to Kenya, and for years she was mother to Auma, who lived with her father’s family.
The Kenyan siblings knew they had a brother, “Barry”, in America, but it wasn’t until he was in his early 20s that Barack – eager to explore the Kenyan side of his identity – made contact with his sister, then living in Germany.
They exchanged letters and, eventually, arranged to meet in Chicago, where Barack was working with a poor community in the projects. Auma describes how she felt immediately close and connected to this young man.
Barack had only briefly lived with their father. Auma – the only girl among five sons – had had a fraught relationship with him, to the extent that when she moved to Germany, she didn’t consult him or even advise him of her plans.
“Partly, the struggle was that he didn’t understand me. As a girl I was strong-willed and I refused to be minimised as ‘just a girl’. Traditionally, women occupied a lesser position, so this was a challenge for him. He didn’t know how to communicate with me, to resolve issues. He wasn’t very well equipped to be a father, especially after Ruth left,” she writes.
Like many children with challenging family relationships, Auma came to understand and accept an imperfect parent. “I blamed him for a lot. The real reconciliation happened when I was a grown-up and he was no longer alive. I came to understand what it is to be a parent, that it doesn’t come with a handbook. My father’s children demanded things of him that he didn’t even know how to give.”
The need to make a difference is a strong thread in the Obama clan, something that both Barack and Auma share with their late father.
“My father was a man who had a social conscience. He believed in African socialism, in human dignity. He went away to study econometrics so that he could help build up the country and the economy.
“By the time he came back, the agenda was different, and there was a lot of disappointment in the sincerity of his counterparts. He spoke out and that led to him having no job, no support.
“I have the privilege of being in a time and place that allows me to explore the urge to make a difference. It was very hard for him not to have a chance to do more,” she writes.
After working for Care International for five years, Auma established non-profit foundation Sauti Kuu, which helps young people to become economically independent, responsible young adults in their communities.
Self-development is a major part of the work the foundation does and is integral to every project. “Sauti Kuu aims to impart a sense of value of self, to encourage them to be proactive participants, to determine their own challenges and issues.
“We work in dialogue, listening, supporting them in finding solutions and in using the resources they have to get what they need. There’s no place for a victim mentality, where an NGO or someone from outside comes and solves your problems,” she says.
In our interview, Auma is reluctant to speak for her brother, and is irked that so many interviewers’ questions focus on him, or their relationship, rather than the broader story. But in the run-up to the US elections, I ask how she feels about his first term in office.
She says: “I am very proud of him. He gives 100% of himself. What saddens me is that people tend to forget that he came into a dire situation and he’s done wonders. Judge him by deeds; he’s made history. My wish is that instead of playing political games, and trying to create distractions, politicians would focus on how they can make a difference to improve the life of the common man.”
Sauti Kuu is Swahili for “powerful voices”. Auma Obama certainly has one.
- And Then Life Happens is distributed by Pan Macmillan in South Africa
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- And Then Life Happens: A Memoir by Auma Obama
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