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Obama Senior’s letters that pushed young Barry away from home

By Oscar Obonyo | July 26th 2015

Barack Obama Jnr would probably have grown up in Kenya and become a local politician had a series of letters from his late grandfather, Hussein Obama, not dissuaded his mother, Ann Dunham, from getting married in K’ogelo village, Siaya County.

According to Obama’s account, Dunham was scared that the pre-independence Mau Mau heroes would chop off her head. Obama’s maternal grandmother, Toot, had read about the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya.

Toot became hysterical following persistent ‘nasty letters’ by Hussein, disapproving of the marriage between her daughter and Obama Senior and accordingly advised her to call off the wedding.

Academic airlift

“He didn’t want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman, he said. Well, you can imagine how Gramps (Barack’s maternal grandfather) reacted to that,” Dunham recounts to her son in Dreams From My Father.

But Obama Senior threw in another letter, maintaining he was going ahead with the marriage.

However, Hussein kept churning out letters to his son, threatening to have his student visa revoked.

It is not clear whether Hussein made good his threat, but in a separate letter dated May 1962, Obama Senior wrote to former Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister, Tom Mboya, asking him to assist his immediate family in Nairobi.

Writing from Hawaii, Obama Senior tells Mboya, who aided his academic airlift to the US, “You know my wife is in Nairobi and I would really appreciate any help you may accord her.”

The wife in question is Kezia Aoko, his first wife, and after reading it, Mboya marked on the left corner of the letter with writings, “Ask Odiawo to see me”.

This was in reference to Kezia’s brother, Wilson Odiawo, who was living in Nairobi with Aoko.

Even then, Obama Senior kept close contact with his “other family” in Hawaii. Although the connection between father and son was somewhat nervous, letters came in handy to sustain the long-distance relationship.

Obama was never sure how aptly to address his father. In one instance, Obama Jnr narrates his excitement in Dreams From My Father, upon receiving a letter from his father. He folded the letter along its seams and stuffed it back into his pocket. “It hadn’t been easy to write him; our correspondence had all but died over the past four years. In fact, I had gone through several drafts, crossing out lines, struggling for the appropriate tone, resisting the impulse to explain too much. “Dear Father.” “Dear Dad.” “Dear Dr Obama,” he writes.

He was trying to respond to a simple but very touching letter, requesting him to make a trip home (Kenya) and inviting him to “know where you belong”.

“Dear Son,

It was such a pleasant surprise to hear from you after so long. I am fine and doing all those things which you know are expected of me in this country. I just came back from London where I was attending to Government business, negotiating finances, etc. In fact, it is because of too much travel that I rarely write to you. In any case, I think I shall do better from now on.

Big man’s family

“You will be pleased to know that all your brothers and sisters here are fine, and send their greetings.

“Like me, they approve of your decision to come home after graduation. When you come, we shall, together, decide on how long you may wish to stay. Barry, even if it is only for a few days, the important thing is that you know your people, and also that you know where you belong.

Please look after yourself, and say hallo to your mum, Tutu, and Stanley. I hope to hear from you soon. Love, Dad”

This letter, and many others, greatly helped to enhance the bond between father and son. This image made him vaguely angry, partly because he was no longer part of this “big man’s” family in Kenya.

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