How Obama's grandfather got name, link with South Nyanza

Former American President Barack Obama. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

It was May 1938 and war drums of World War II had started beating across the world.

Just like a few years earlier in 1915 during the build-up of the First World War, the British colonial government shifted its attention to Kenya to get soldiers to join its combat unit.

Although Kenyans loathed forced conscription, the war would have a future implication in building the profile of former US President Barack Obama.

He would be born 23 years later (in 1961) but his name and religious profile were built at the height of that world conflict.

It was during this time that his grandfather got the name Obama and converted to islam.

These details are captured in a new book celebrating the life of legendary colonial chief Paul Mboya. The book authored by Godfrey Sang and Vincent Orinda highlights key events in the country’s history.

Among the major historical happenings that the book, ‘Paul Mboya; A portrait of a great leader’, covers are Obama’s roots and how the Obama name was adopted.

It also seeks to explain the South Nyanza link. Although the family later settled in Kogello in Siaya, it traces its roots to Karachuonyo at the height of World War II.

Onyango, Obama’s grandfather, secured a job at Gendia mission as a cook.

At the time, the mission was thriving after a group of missionaries keen to spread the Christian gospel pitched tent there. Onyango was a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), a church that was quickly becoming popular in the region.

Legendary colonial chief Paul Mboya. [Michael Mute, Standard]

Despite being a cook, Obama’s grandfather had an interest in politics and was keen to serve the colonial government as an assistant chief for Karachuonyo.

Quit job

His goal, however, hit a brick wall and this did not augur well with him.

As a result, Onyango quickly quit Gendia Mission and joined Muslims that had set up base at Kendu. It was here that he got the Muslim name- Hussein.

Meanwhile, the British conscription programme had just started and the colonial administration had intensified its efforts to recruit Kenyans.

Some men who were unhappy with the development fled to Tanganyika (Tanzania) while others found their way to Lake Victoria’s isolated islands.

The recruits were referred to us “Panyako”. On August 23, 1939, Storrs Fox received information that the war was just about to start.

After receiving the reports he intensified the bid to bring more Kenyans from South Nyanza on board to form part of the British Carrier Corps. With the harassment that many had endured at the hands of the British, getting men to join the British force was not a walk in the park.

In places where residents refused to enlist, colonial chiefs rounded them at night and forced them to join the British army.

At the time, young men across the country feared attending social gatherings and sports. It is at such forums where the colonial administrators would round up young men and forcibly conscript them to fight in World War II.

Most of them would be deployed as porters who carried supplies for the British army on their backs. Many of those who were conscripted never came back home and were never seen again.

Philip Orinda, the son of chief Mboya, was also recruited. Mboya’s book says he did not stand in the way of those who had opted to enlist and allowed them to travel to Kisumu.

But several who were yet to overcome the horrific experience they faced in 1914 when the Germans attacked Kisii refused to enlist and played a cat-and-mouse game with the British.

Daniel Orinda, the son of chief Mboya. [Michael Mute, Standard]

Onyango was among those who were recruited by the British colonial administration to fight in World War II.

He was posted to Burma.

It was this move that earned him a new name. His friends and relatives nicknamed him O-bama, giving the name a Luo ring.

Some 73 years later, to be precise, his grandson Obama would become the 44 president of the US and would carry the same name.

By the end of 1944, most of the recruits that had fought in the war had already started coming back home after spending five years in the trenches fighting for their colonial masters.

Victory parade

They would be forced to pay taxes for themselves and for their families to the colonial government.

Chiefs and Africans who collaborated with the British, including Mboya, would be gifted by the colonial regime after the end of the war.

In the same year, while Mboya still worked as a chief of Karachuonyo, the colonial administration would elevate him to the position of deputy vice president of the Local Native Council.

In 1946, he would also be among the few Kenyans to be selected by the British administration to attend the victory parade held in London.

Others who travelled were a teacher from Kakamega Solomon Adagala, chief Cheruiyot arap Chepkwony, Chief James Mwathi from Nyeri and Charles Muhoro.

Despite fighting in Burma, Obama’s grandfather was not among those who were invited to London to attend the victory parade.

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