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Records at Maseno School show the bright side of President Barack Obama’s father

By David Ochami | July 26th 2015

Setting the record straight: While accounts by relatives captured in President Obama’s autobiography indicate his father was a rebel, notes by teachers, pastors and other staff at the school depict a hardworking student.

Beneath the gum trees of Maseno area on the Equator on the edge of Kisumu and Vihiga counties and at the foot of imposing rocky hills lies Maseno School, Kenya’s foremost historical learning institution. It is the former school of Barack Hussein Obama, father of US President Barack Obama.

Barack Obama Sr with a young President Barack Obama (PHOTO: COURTESY)

Established by the Anglican Church under the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1906, Kenya’s oldest school and its decaying walls and colonial structures tell the full story of formal education in Kenya, if only the world could listen.

Maseno School became the first examination centre in colonial Kenya through the efforts of its first Headmaster JJ Willis in 1910. The first examination (in 1910) was occasioned by a student revolt of African learners who enrolled in 1906 but after acquiring literacy and numeracy skills, discovered that the missionary teachers did not intend to teach Africans anything beyond gardening, hygiene and pastoral work. So they revolted, demanding a formal education.

What became the first and last student strike in Maseno’s 109 years history was orchestrated by the late Ojijo Oteko.

Ojijo, in whose honour Ojijo Road in Nairobi is named, forced the colonial/missionary authorities to introduce a formal curriculum and examination later went to study in the US around the period of WW1 only to return to be killed in unexplained circumstances for daring to organise a revolt against colonial rule.

Close to half a century later, Maseno School admitted another legend – Barack Hussein Obama who studied at the school for four years. The institution has produced many other legends who have excelled in research and academic fields. Few alumni like former opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s High Commissioner to the US Robinson Njeru Githae and Kitui Senator David Musila joined politics.

After treading where the late Barack Hussein Obama walked between 1951 and 1954, Githae joined law school after six years at Maseno School and is now playing a key role in welcoming US President Barack Obama to Kenya.

Two years ago, Maseno School’s old buildings were declared a UNESCO World Heritage. A couple of years earlier the current US President – then writing as a Senator before becoming President – thrust Maseno School into international limelight when he announced that his father studied there.

Records from former students and contemporaries have established that the future US President spoke too soon when he declared in Dreams from My Father that his father enrolled but did not finish his studies at the school.

Dozens of reports demonstrate that the late Obama’s sojourn at Maseno School was not as tempestuous as his son depicts in Dreams from My Father. Notes by teachers, pastors and other staff within the school depict a hardworking gentleman whose efforts at Maseno saved dozens of students from being expelled but also led him to pass his own examination. They also reveal that the late Obama was admitted as a Christian, practiced Christianity and did his final examination in several subjects including Christian Religious Education.

Making of legends

Paul Otula, the current principal, says Obama “enrolled in 1951 till 1954 and was an exceptional student from the records we have because that time admission was only based on merit and not quotas or affirmative action and no faint hearted person could have survived the four years”.

He adds that “Maseno (School) is a place where legends were made by the missionaries through hard work and academics”.

In Dreams from My Father, the US President wrote, quoting a narration by his grandmother Sarah, that after a streak of rebellious activity at Maseno School, including theft, sneaking out and smuggling girls into the dormitory for long “Barack eventually went too far with his mischief and was finally expelled”. Records now show that the only Barack Hussein Obama who ever studied at Maseno enrolled in 1951, after passing exams at Nyang’oma Primary School and Ng’iya Mission Schools between 1943 and 1950 in Siaya and, successfully, concluded his studies in Form Four in 1954.

The records do not state Obama Snr’s age or enrolment number on admission but it is recorded that for four years he lived in Willis Dormitory, named after the first headmaster. Barack Hussein Obama’s headmaster for the whole period was BL Bowers who died in the United Kingdom in the mid-1980s.

These records indicate that Bowers taught Christian Religious Education to the late Obama for most of the four years. Student details were limited to tribe and race and for Obama these papers describe him just as “Nilote” and “Luo” as was the custom by the colonial British education authorities then. Photographs were introduced in some cases where admitted pupils had access to these facilities. For Obama the only available photograph of him at Maseno School is an old grainy black and white group portrait of his Form Three class in 1953. Obama is seen in grey khaki shorts seated crossed legged posing for the camera.

In the leaving certificate issued in December 1954, Bowers described Obama as “conscientious, hardworking and generous”, in contrast of what appears of him in later life as shown in his son’s book.

In Dreams from My Father, Obama also describes his father as hardworking but also, repeatedly, depicts him as rebellious and truant by quoting Sarah, his step grandmother, alleging that “your father’s rebellious nature caused the school some grief”. Bowers’ summative evaluation shows the opposite including disclosing that during his third and fourth year “Barack and other boys organised re-teaching of junior students so that they (junior students) would not lose their place in the school”.

Besides assisting the junior students with English skills, which he had grasped well at Nyang’oma and Ng’iya, Obama Senior is reported to have aided teachers in manual and pastoral work.

According to Otula, who has studied the school’s history extensively, many new students dropped out fast for lack of English skills and the rigorous academic regime.

In Dreams from My Father, President Obama repeatedly indicates that Islam crept into this family when the senior Obama’s father Onyango converted after migrating to Kendu Bay before WW II, which raises the question whether Barack also took his father’s new religion.

The papers at Maseno School and interviews with multiple authorities indicate the first Muslim students were admitted to this institution only after independence when the Anglican Church handed over the school to government.

During the colonial days, Maseno School admitted only Anglicans and tolerated other Protestants only if they converted to Anglicanism and baptised afresh.

Eliphas Okechi, who joined Maseno School in 1955 and left in 1958, says that “throughout my stay there was no Muslim or member of any other church congregation. Maseno only admitted Anglicans.”

Okechi, 78, who was originally from the Church of God says Bowers and the school regulations decreed that all students who came to Maseno and were not Anglican “were to be baptised (afresh) into the Anglican Church”.

Otula also says he has established that “no one could be admitted to this school if they were not Anglican and this only stopped after independence”.

Catholic schools also did not admit Muslim or Protestant Christians as Roy Imende, 83, discovered when he tried to enroll at St Mary’s Secondary School at Yala as a Protestant in 1945.

Despite qualifying at the primary school examination and being a Christian from the Church of God, he was forced to take Catholic catechism classes, convert to Catholicism and was baptised as a Catholic before admission. Roy became Roy Athanas Imende as a newly minted Catholic but reverted to his old church after school.

Glaring contradictions

Today, 70 per cent of Maseno School is old and the buildings require rehabilitation having been built between 1906 and 1930 for they cannot be pulled down because they are protected by UNESCO. Willis dormitory still thrives as the school endeavours to erect new classrooms, administration blocks and modern dormitories.

In Dreams from My Father, Obama alleges his father married for the first time aged 18 and went to the US after dropping out of school and trying many jobs in Mombasa and Nairobi.

Documents now disprove this because, although it is not known when the late Obama was born, he was most likely still in school at the time of the alleged marriage. Meanwhile, new proof that the late Obama studied for four years at Maseno also disproves previous claims in Dreams from My Father that he needed the intervention of expatriates to do bridging courses to join Hawaii University.

As shown the late Obama spent his primary school years in Siaya and it is not clear from Dreams from My Father when his father Onyango migrated from Kendu with his son Obama in tow.

Yet, from these records it is not clear what grade the late Obama scored at Form Four amid fresh claims that the real reason his father Onyango fled Alego for Kendu was plague. Onyango fled Kendu back to Alego by boat owing to a fierce feud with former chief Paul Mbuya, according to reports that allege there was a plot to kill the future president’s grandfather in Kendu, contrary to a version in Dreams from My Father, which indicate Onyango left Kendu because it was overgrazed and populated.

Anecdotal new evidence shows the feud with Mbuya who loathed Onyango’s popularity in Kendu, caused the late Onyango to lay claim to Islam, a religion he never really practised even within the world of Dreams from My Father.

“Obama is the most misunderstood old boy (of Maseno School) because people just rush for rumour that flies across but that is the burden all legends bear,” concludes Otula who also says “Obama was a brilliant gentleman just like any other student”.

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