The Other Barack
By Sally Jacobs
The Perseus Book Group
Barack Obama hardly knew his father. Their only significant encounter occurred in Hawaii in 1971 when Barack was aged ten. Having abandoned his young family shortly after Barack’s birth, Obama Snr, also named Barack, reappeared briefly in Honolulu to spend Christmas with them.
His visit did not go well. Obama Snr made little effort to engage his son in conversation. “I often felt mute before him,” his son wrote in his memoir Dreams From My Father, “and he never pushed me to speak.” When Obama tried to enforce paternal discipline, there was palpable tension. Barack Jnr “began to count the days until my father would leave and things would return to normal”.
It was only after his father’s death in Kenya in 1982 that Obama set out to discover more about him. In 1988, he spent five weeks in Kenya talking to relatives there, but found many of them as baffled as he was about key passages of his father’s life.
A second visit to Kenya in 2006, during his term as a US senator, provided no further enlightenment. Indeed, no other American President has reached the pinnacle of power in the White House knowing so little about his own father.
With admirable endeavour, Sally Jacobs has pieced together the hidden fragments of Obama Snr’s life, tracking down family members, friends and colleagues, sifting through official documents and prising out the quirks of fate that led him to Hawaii in the first place.
Jacobs notes at the outset that the person best placed to undertake a comprehensive profile would have been President Obama, who has so many resources at his disposal. But she observes that despite the research he undertook to write Dreams From My Father, “he seems ambivalent about how far he wants to go in probing his father’s soul”.
She adds: “There are many places he has not gone.”
Indeed, her portrait reveals a deeply flawed character. Obama Snr was undoubtedly clever and charming, and showed early promise, but he was also callous, devious and secretive: a prolific drinker and philanderer, who left a string of neglected wives and children in his wake and who squandered the many chances that came his way.
Born in a village in Luoland, western Kenya, in 1936, he was a troublesome student with a reputation for chronic misbehaviour. He left secondary school aged 16 with a low-grade certificate after teachers refused to recommend him for further education.
A series of short-term jobs followed, before he found work as a clerk in a Nairobi law firm and married a Luo girl. The first of his eight or so children was born in 1957.
His stroke of fortune was to come to the attention of a middle-aged American teacher, Elizabeth Mooney. Impressed by his skills as a typist and his performance on the dancefloor, she hired him to assist with her literacy programme and encouraged his ambition to gain entrance to an American university. When he was eventually accepted by Hawaii University, she agreed to pay for his first year’s tuition. Leaving behind his pregnant wife and son in Kenya, Obama Snr arrived in Honolulu in 1959, neglecting to acknowledge their existence to immigration officials, college authorities or any of the friends he made there. The first African student to study in Hawaii, he was soon renowned for his “playboy ways”.
His romance with Ann Dunham, a 17-year-old student, was conducted at whirlwind pace. They met in 1960 and married in February 1961. By the time Barack Jnr was born in August 1961, they were already separated.
Obama’s next stop was Harvard, where he adopted the same lifestyle. But his pursuit of women became so relentless that his scholarship money was withdrawn and immigration authorities told him to leave the American mainland.
Just before returning to Kenya, he proposed to a 27-year-old American blonde, Ruth Baker, who duly followed him to Nairobi in 1964, becoming his third wife.
Obama’s life henceforth degenerated into a series of failed jobs, heavy drinking sessions, quarrels with colleagues, car crashes and endless affairs.
He turned violent towards his third wife and, after she left, he married for a fourth time. His various children in Kenya regarded him as “a menacing and dangerous presence”.
Jacobs’s verdict is that he was “a man fundamentally flawed by his inner demons and undone by his own fears”. His end came, not unexpectedly, in a drunken car crash.
Martin Meredith is the biographer of Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe. His latest book, Born In Africa, is published this month by Simon & Schuster.
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