In 1988, a young woman picked up her younger brother at the airport in Nairobi in a beat–up VW Beetle. In 2015, he visited again, this time, they rode from the same airport in a custom-built limousine. Next week, the brother will visit again. Where will she be? Welcome to the world of Auma Obama.
Three years ago, on a warm Friday morning in a quint upmarket hotel, I patiently waited for Auma Obama to arrive for our meeting. I was having coffee with a woman who was the sister of arguably the most powerful man in the world, the 44th President of the United States. While I didn’t know what to expect, I had certainly not anticipated meeting a no-frills, down to earth woman. For starters, she did not want to talk about her famous brother, and she explained that she preferred to navigate life without the ‘fakeness’ that the ‘Obama tag’ tended to bring out in many. “I get invited to many things just because of the Obama name. I am proud of him – don’t get me wrong – and I appreciate that people get excited about him, but I don’t want to be reduced to that. I won’t tell his story,” she had said, looking a tad irritated.
She was in a structured black dress, a matching pair of sensible shoes, medium length dreadlocks pushed back, and a makeup-free face save for a little lip gloss. It was an efficient look. The kind favoured by people who would rather not spend precious minutes scouring through a wardrobe. And it suited her, matching the urgency in her manner as she brushed away a loose loc with a toned arm.
She had been a tough one to track down. At the time, her brother Barack Obama, was serving his last term. He had just visited Kenya, and out of all the excitement and fanfare of having him on Kenyan soil, a dreadlocked woman had stood out. A woman who had had to step out of the shadows, albeit reluctantly, because she was a sibling to a famous and very important man in the grand scheme of the world order. And people were curious.
As soon as the hype had died down, she had retreated back into the shadows.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
While the siblings share a father, their upbringings could not have been more different. Auma was born in 1960 in South Nyanza while Barack was born in 1961 in United States. Auma was the product of a union between Barack Obama Sr and Kezia Aoko, his first wife, while her famous brother was born out of a union between Obama Senior and Stanley Ann Dunham, an American. This second marriage lasted only three years before their father’s third marriage to American Ruth Beatrice Baker that lasted for nine years.
When her father married his third wife, Auma and her elder brother Malik moved with their new mother and father to Nairobi, a situation that left her floundering after the marriage failed.
In And Then Life Happens, A Memoir, she recounts feeling alone and desolate for not having a present mother figure. And she blamed her father for all her troubles. Kezia had relinquished the care of Auma and Malik when her father had remarried.
“I felt betrayed by my father, blaming him for not holding the family together, and abandoned by my stepmother,” she said.
Barack Obama Sr had eight children and Auma is the only girl.
CHARTING HER OWN COURSE
After primary education, she joined Kenya High School then Kenyatta University for a fine arts degree that her father ‘didn’t think much of.’ She was only there for a year before she got a scholarship to Germany to study sociology and German.
“I really wanted to get out of Kenya. Besides getting an education, I still felt very confined by the fact that women were expected to do, say or be a certain way. I wanted to break free of that. My cultural background played a big part in pushing me away.
"The traditional Luo culture dictates that a woman and her children belong to the man. I couldn’t see why a man should be superior to me, when I was just as capable as he was,” she said during the interview.
BROTHER FINDS SISTER
She finally met her American brother while she was in Germany.
Barack somehow found out where his sister was and sent her a letter. He wanted to know and meet her. “For years, my father had urged me to write to Barry, but I had always gotten out of it with some excuse. The brother in the United States was too far away, too abstract for me to take an interest in him,” she writes in her book.
Barack’s letter broke the ice and they kept in touch, making plans to meet in Chicago.
“I noticed that he was much taller than I was, had very short hair and wore classic sporty clothing. I was reminded of my father, who had favoured a similar style for casual dress. And like my father, Barack was very slim, almost bony.”
Their relationship blossomed and in 1992, and during Michelle and Barack’s wedding, Auma was in the bridal party as a bridesmaid.
WHERE IS SHE NOW?
Auma may be famous for her kinship but she is definitely more than just Barack’s sister.
She holds a Master’s degree from the University of Heidelberg, a degree in film studies from the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin and a PhD from the University of Bayreuth.
She is also a mother to 21-year-old daughter Akinyi and runs Sauti Kuu, a foundation in western Kenya that empowers the children and youth to find some economic stability. She spends her time between Germany and Kenya, fundraising for the foundation and doing public speaking engagements.