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The Obama Diaspora


You can hardly blame George—a street-smart guy in one of the poorest corners of the world—for trying to capitalize on America’s fascination with the unusual lineage of its latest president. In Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama wrote of a journey of self-discovery that ultimately took him to his Kenyan roots. Almost all of his living relatives run through his father, Barack Obama Sr., whom he remembers meeting only once in Hawaii at the age of 10. Obama Sr. was born to Hussein Onyango Obama, who worked as a domestic for British employers and served in the Second World War as a cook for a British captain. Onyango came home with a photograph of a white woman (whose name has been lost to history) he claimed to have married in Burma. Onyango had three wives in Kenya: Helima, Akumu, and Sarah, the only one known to be still living.

By all accounts, Onyango was a mean-spirited man. He clashed violently with Akumu, the mother of Obama Sr. Family lore says that Akumu ran away after the birth of her third child. Little is known of the whereabouts of Obama Sr.’s sisters, Auma and Sarah.

Obama Sr., was part of the Kenyan generation that came of age with uhuru, or independence, and was a beneficiary of a scholarship program that brought him to the States. After a short marriage to Stanley Ann Dunham, the president’s mother, he earned a master’s from Harvard, returned to Kenya, and became a government economist. He had overlapping relationships with at least four different women, in keeping with accepted East African cultural practice. When the younger Barack Obama first visited Kenya in 1988, he learned that his father had experienced a series of personal and political misfortunes later in life, and had died a broken man at the age of 46. He left behind a large set of heirs, and competing factions of the family fought over his meager estate.

Dunham died in 1995 of ovarian and uterine cancer at the age of 52. She was 18 when she married Obama Sr. A few years after their divorce in 1964, Dunham met and married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student who later became a geologist and oil executive. The family moved to Indonesia, where Ann would live, on and off, for the rest of her life. She studied for a Ph.D. in anthropology, and after fourteen years of research produced a 1,043-page dissertation on peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia. In December, a revised version will be republished by Duke University Press. A feature-length documentary about her life will begin shooting next year.

Neither of Barack Obama’s parents, of course, lived to see their son become president. But now that he has, the background players in his family drama—half-brothers, step-grandmothers—are experiencing a disorienting measure of reflective fame. They’re doing their best to handle it, with varying degrees of grace.

The Confidante
Maya Soetoro-Ng, the child Ann Dunham had with Lolo Soetoro, is writing a children’s book premised on explaining her mother’s peripatetic life to her own 5-year-old daughter, Suhaila. Soetoro-Ng is the only sibling that Barack Obama knew growing up, and the two are close. She has played an honorary role in his administration, serving on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. Formerly a high-school teacher in Hawaii, she left her job this spring and is now spending part of the year in Washington, where her husband, a professor named Konrad Ng, has a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution.

The Matriarch
Everyone remembers Obama’s tearful final visit with his maternal grandmother, who died two days before the 2008 election. But he still had another “granny,” as he calls her, back in Kenya: Mama Sarah, his octogenarian step-grandmother (Onyango’s third wife). Within hours of Obama’s victory, electricity lines were planted on the Obama-family homestead in the village of Kogelo, in western Kenya. In the African countryside, where advancement is measured by the replacement of a thatch roof with metal, this counted as a major sign, as if any were needed, that the Obamas were moving up in the world. In the afternoon, you can still see Mama Sarah, the mistress of the house, sitting under a mango tree behind a chain-link fence guarded by police. But neighbors say that the family has become somewhat reclusive of late, and Mama Sarah is no longer a regular fixture at the playground with baskets of mandazis, deep-fried dough balls, for the local children. However, for tourists who are willing to pay $500, there’s a possible answer: a round-trip package from Nairobi called the “Obamaland Weekend Break,” which features a tour of the local sights, and a potential visit with Mama Sarah.


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