Whole shelves of books have explored Barack Obama's American journey. Son of an immigrant father, he overcame both humble beginnings and racial barriers to become president of the United States. Yet aside from Mr. Obama's own investigation of his most recent African forebears, Americans have known little about the President's African roots.
Now, in what he calls a "prequel" to Obama's Dreams From My Father, veteran BBC filmmaker Peter Firstbrook has traced the Obama family back to 1250 AD. The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family (Crown), follows Obama's tribe, the Luo, through 23 generations of migration, war, raiding, and settlement in Eastern Africa, a story made all the more complex by the myriad branches of a polygamous family tree. Stanley and Livingstone, forgotten, bloody World War I battles, and the Mau Mau insurgency are all part of the backdrop of modern African history against which Firstbrook sets the Obama saga. Sharply etched portraits of the president's grandfather Hussein Onyango and his father, Barack Sr.—as well as many living aunts, uncles, and cousins—help bring the periods of British colonialism and Kenyan independence into focus.
Peter Firstbrook spoke with The Atlantic from his home in London about the president's place in African history, and the difficult, un-dreamlike discoveries he made about Mr. Obama's father.
Your book begins with Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the United States, and then plunges the reader into a sweeping, six-century saga of tribal Africa that led to that moment. That had me thinking about the accidents of chance that shape global outcomes.
Yes. Out of this messy pattern of history came an extraordinary narrative of African, Iron-Age boy to American president in two generations. I find it the most extraordinary of stories.
But then there has always been this great American Dream, that if you try hard enough and work hard enough you do get what you want. In Dreams From My Father, the President writes about himself growing up as a multi-racial kid in a white world, not knowing himself. So many boys of that generation and that age lost their way. I just find it the most extraordinary story that President Obama, despite the sort of problems that millions of other mixed-race and black youths, not only in the U.S. but in Europe, did find this extraordinary way through to the White House. You could not have written that story.
I was struck by the contrast of life in the White House with the everyday reality of President Obama's African relatives.
The remarkable thing is that the President's closest living blood relative [in Africa], Hawa Auma Obama, the youngest sister of his father, is living in a very basic situation in a small township called Oyugis. She's widowed, so she has to support herself, and she makes money by selling charcoal under the tropical sun on the side of the road. On a good day, she makes about $2.
But in that respect she's not atypical of most of the members of his family. Aside from the fact that one of their members is in the White House, the Obamas in Kenya are living very much a typical Kenyan life in the early 21st century. The average income is about $2 a day. Those living around Kendu Bay are in compounds which have no electricity and no running water. They have to collect the water from the nearby river, which is about a mile away, so water has to be carried back in buckets.
You've got to remember that the president's grandfather was born into the Iron Age. Onyango was born in 1895 into a society that didn't use the wheel, that didn't have a written language. His grandfather did not see a white person until he was 11 years old. And you've gone from Onyango to president Obama in just two generations, which is an absolutely remarkable achievement.
While the president was my point of entry into the story, your book is really about the history of East Africa. Was that the book you intended to write?
I realized that if you were going to tell the family history, you would have to put it in context. Even in Britain, let alone the USA, people [are] only vaguely familiar with the background history. Anything that predated the British going out there in the middle part of the 19th century is pretty much unknown. Out of that idea came this triple narrative—that of tracing the family back, tracing the history of the Luo people, and then tracing the history of Kenya emerging through British colonization to an independent nation. There are parallels. You could tell exactly the same story with other tribes in Africa, in Kenya, in Uganda; likewise you could tell the story in Tanzania or Nigeria or Ghana. In [some] respects it's a story that could be repeated any number of times in different parts of the continent.
Barack Obama is the son of an immigrant, but then you make the case that the Luo, and other tribes, were historically on the move.
[There was] a period of 600 years of constant migration of the Luo people from Sudan into Uganda and western Kenya. President Obama's father was himself an educational migrant, if you like. One of the brightest and best in the country, he left Kenya and established himself in Hawaii, married, and had a child. It reflects, I think, the constant motion of people around the world and is an example of the positive benefits that can come out of it.
One of the big political issues in the world today is that of the migration of peoples. Certainly it's an issue in North America with Mexico, in particular, as well as in Europe with Africans and Eastern Europeans. It is interesting to look back on world history and see that people have always been on the move. In Europe, what is often forgotten is that people who migrated to Europe from Africa and elsewhere are the brightest, the most determined, the most ambitious and often the best educated—because they're the ones who are able to make it. So often the migration of people into a society benefits that society much more than I think it is credited for.
You discovered that the African Obamas firmly believe Barack Sr.'s death in 1982 was the result of foul play by a rival political tribe. The president did not mention that in his book, and you feel it's possible that he may not have known.
This came as a huge surprise to me. It came up naturally in a conversation I had with his aunt, Auma, and his cousin, Charles Oluoch about the death of the president's father. I was astonished. I spoke in detail with Charles about it, because he was actually in Nairobi at the time when Barack Sr. died, and was the first family member to see Barack Sr.'s body in the mortuary. He was a first-hand witness. Without exception every other member of the family told me the same story, even Sarah, the grandmother, who was normally quite circumspect in talking about family matters. They are all firmly of the opinion that that is what happened to Barack Sr.
At the time under the [Daniel arap] Moi government, the family had no option but to accept what happened. You certainly couldn't speak out. I talked to people outside the family to see whether it was just one of those family stories. But many people said, look, this sort of thing happened all the time. The Kikuyu, who were the ruling political tribe, not infrequently assassinated members of the Luo tribe when they felt that they were getting too powerful or too influential. Or just difficult—which was probably more the case with Barack, Sr. So it's quite possible, though it's not something you could ever prove without disinterring the body and doing a toxicology test. And there would be absolutely no point in doing that.
Your exploration of Luo traditions and customs leads to some interesting ironies. The president would have a hard time fitting into Luo culture if he wanted to relocate after his term was over: because he is left-handed and has only daughters, he could not build a homestead in Nyaza. And technically, he would need to knock down the White House because his mother-in-law currently lives there with his family. How is all that taken by the Luo?
It's not an issue in modern Kenya. That taboo is something that really goes back to the 19th century. Those sorts of traditions now have weakened. He would be welcomed with open arms in Kenya. I mean, they look on him almost as a demigod. All the people are immensely proud of what he's done and what he's achieved. The reality is that Mr. Obama is an American of mixed race. He's never lived in Africa; he was born and brought up in America entirely except for a few years in Indonesia. But the Luo see the president as a Luo, and claim him as their own.
But the tragedy there is that he can never go to Kenya again and retrace his roots without having an entourage, because he's who he is and always will be. He'll never have that privacy.