5:10 am Dec. 2, 20113
Barack Obama introduced himself to the world via a memoir entitled Dreams From My Father, so he can only blame himself for the public’s obsession with his many-branched family tree.
In his book, Obama portrayed his namesake, Barack Obama Sr., as an absent but nonetheless dominating presence in his life. Since his election as president, other works have filled in tragic, often damning, details about the late Kenyan economist and his treatment of his many far-flung offspring. In his mammoth biography of the president, David Remnick portrays Obama’s father as “a man of promise” who “failed not only his ambitions, but dozens of family members who depended on him.”
Some of those family members, though, say that Obama Sr. has been badly served by the family’s many chroniclers. That’s why Abon’go Malik Obama, the patriarch’s oldest son, got in touch with me this week from Kisumu, Kenya. He said he had completed the first draft of a 375-page biography of his father which tells a very different story: one of a principled public servant who battled a corrupt government and met a mysterious death.
“Being the eldest of the family, I felt like it was my duty and responsibility to set the record straight,” Malik said. “So at least it won’t be from somebody’s else’s perspective—an outsider’s perspective.”
Other Obama children have published their own versions of this story—George and Auma have both written memoirs, while Mark Ndesandjo, who lives in China, penned a roman a clef—but Malik claims that Barack Obama Sr.: The Rise and Life of a True African Scholar is the first book to fully explore the president’s African background. He is currently looking for an American publisher, and he shared a few chapters with me.
True to its origins, the book is not so much a meticulous history as a well-burnished—even mythopoeic—tale of an African family, in which the leader of the free world is portrayed as the inheritor of a long and noble bloodline. The book traces the Jok’Obama (people of Obama) back to the son of a tribal leader who lost a succession struggle.
“Ogelo bowed down, saying ‘My younger brother Owiny has taken from me the chieftainship,’” Malik writes, recounting a purported piece of family lore. “‘But I know I will retain the chieftainship in a more advanced role at the right time. My great-grandson shall rule the globe through the most powerful nation in the land.’”
Some of the same history is told, in a less detailed and prophetic fashion, in Dreams From My Father, the Urtext of the Obama legend. Malik is a major character in that book, although at the time he went by the name Roy. His mother, Kezia, was Obama Sr.’s first wife, the woman he left behind when he went to study in America, where he made another family.
“I would prefer that you just say I’m the president’s brother,” Malik said. “We never refer to one another as ‘half’ or ‘quarter’ when we are together.”
The two of them reconnected in the 1980s, when the younger Barack was studying at Columbia University, and Malik was living in Washington, where he was working as an accountant and living with his then-wife, an American former Peace Corps volunteer.
Later, Malik joined the future president on the 1988 pilgrimage to the family’s ancestral village and took his brother to the grave of Obama Sr., who died in a 1982 car accident. Obama wrote that at the time, Malik spoke bitterly about his father’s flaws, drunkenness and “descent into poverty.” In comparison to another African sibling, he wrote, Malik’s “memories of the Old Man seemed more immediate, more taunting; for him the past remained an open sore.”
But the wounds seem to have healed.
“I too seek solace in my roots,” Malik writes in his introduction, which also includes a transcript of Obama’s inaugural speech and three Islamic prayers. (Malik is a practicing Muslim, like his grandfather Onyango Obama, a servant to the colonial British who also dabbled in Christianity, briefly going by the surname “Johnson.”)
His mother Kezia, who now lives in the London suburb of Bracknell, contributed a forward. “The president of the United States would find this book compelling, and it shall answer various questions about who his father was,” she writes. “Barack always had a dream. … He discredited a society scratched by racism and tribalism.”
The portions of the book that Malik shared mainly hew to the now well-known story: how Obama Sr. grew up in rural Africa and won a scholarship to study in America, where he was “vexed by the continuous misunderstandings of the new world.”
After he left graduate school at Harvard—at the prodding of the I.N.S., recently disclosed documents suggest—Obama returned to a radically altered, independent Kenya.
Malik’s book, however, reverses the familiar narrative of Dreams From My Father. The long sojourn of Obama Sr. in America is treated as a difficult period for his family back in Kenya. It is Obama’s father back in Africa, instead of the Kansan in-laws, who is gravely disapproving of his interracial marriage.
In the introduction to the book, Kezia calls the allegation that Obama Sr. was an “abusive bigamist” a “mere myth.” The book goes on to explain that polygamy is a common practice within Kenya’s Luo tribe, recounting the example of a local man nicknamed “Danger,” who recently died and left behind 210 children.
The book’s most interesting departure from the conventional narrative comes in its discussion of the patriarch’s death. By most accounts—including the president’s own—Obama Sr. fell on hard times in the late 1960s, when his patron, an important Luo politician named Tom Mboya, was assassinated. Obama Sr. was apparently vocal in his suspicions that Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s president, was behind the killing. There was a tribal element to the supposed murder plot: Kenyatta was a Kikuyu, and the Kenya’s Luos were convinced that the regime was conspiring to empower his people above theirs. Obama Sr. was soon fired from his government job. According to Remnick’s book, when he would drink, he would claim to know the dangerous truth behind the assassination.
President Obama has always said his father died in a late-night, one-car accident, after leaving a bar and colliding with a gum tree. Although there have been occasional whispers of a possible conspiracy, Malik’s book offers perhaps the most direct challenge to date of the official story.
“What I know is that the government actually caused his downfall,” Kezia writes in her introduction, connecting his death to a fumbling coup 1982 coup attempt, mounted by some Luo air force officers.
“He was mentioned to have participated in the 1982 coup attempt,” she writes. “From the 1st August to 24th November 1982”—the day of the accident—“Barack was restless, he could not reason properly, as if he had sensed danger.”
Malik writes that, “There was talk that he had been in the company of friends, the identity of whom is still a mystery, and had received some large sums of cash, the whereabouts of which no one has ever been able to determine. A classic conspiracy theory that may have some truth to it.”
Anyone who has spent much time in Africa becomes familiar with such theorizing. The death of a prominent person, even if the person was mortally ill or a terrible driver, seems never to be deemed an accident.
Whether or not there is anything behind the family’s claims, though, the fact that Obama’s Kenyan family is now casting him as a martyr has political resonance within Kenya. That country is having its own presidential election in 2012. The country’s most powerful Luo officeholder, Raila Odinga—the son of a politician imprisoned by Jomo Kenyatta—is likely to face off against Kenyatta’s own son, Uhuru, provided the latter candidate is able to get out from under an International Criminal Court indictment related to ethnic violence that broke out after Kenya’s last election.
(Incidentally, I met Odinga and Kenyatta together in 2004, when they sat next to each other for the keynote Democratic Convention speech delivered by the bright young son of Odinga’s old friend Barack Obama. Kenyan politics is a small world.)
As for the book’s effect on American politics, Malik says he is aware that his book is likely to be scrutinized for clues by that obsessive subset of conservatives who view the president’s African parentage as a kind of skeleton key that unlocks his secret agenda. For instance, Newt Gingrich, this week’s Republican front-runner, once suggested that the president subscribes to a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview that lies “outside our comprehension.” But he told me he was inspired to redeem his father’s reputation after reading two other recent books—The Other Barack by Sally Jacobs, and The Obamas by Peter Firstbrook—which he complains misportray Obama Sr. as a dissolute failure. (Jacobs, a Boston Globe reporter, wrote in her book that he was known around Nairobi as “Mr. Double-Double” for his habit of ordering two big whiskies at a time, and claimed that Malik and other Obamas tried to thwart her project, circulating emails alleging she was a Republican agent.)
“It’s really unauthorized, so this one is genuine, and it’s from me,” Malik said, adding, “At least they will now have the alternative to the gutter press.”
Politically, Malik himself leans toward pan-Africanism. His book references Malcolm X and spells the name of his continent: “Afrika.” Educated at prestigious private schools and the University of Nairboi, Malik is portrayed in Dreams From My Father as a convivial drinker who resembled the president's father in every way.
But he has since settled down. He owns an electronics store in Kisumu and heads a foundation named for his father which, among other charitable works, has rebuilt a mosque in the Obamas’ ancestral area. Jacobs portrayed Malik’s efforts with the mosque as matter of internal family dissension, with some members concerned that “such a glaring symbol of the family’s Muslim faith [would] negatively impact the Obama presidency.”
Malik told me that he wanted to emphasize that the White House has not endorsed either the book or the work of his foundation.
“They’re hands-off,” he said. “They’re not involved in what I’m doing. He’s doing his thing, he’s the president of United States. I am Malik Obama, doing this thing. We’re just brothers—that’s how it is.”
Andrew Rice is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda.
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