African Myths and Obama Mania

He is supposed to be Kenya’s great hope. The man who could turn this country around, restoring peace and democracy. A role model for all aspiring politicians. But as Barack Obama’s run for the Democratic nomination heads towards its most crucial phase, there has been barely a mention of his campaign in the Kenyan papers. Well, there’s been a bit… but nothing like the Obama mania that has accompanied his every previous step up the political ladder.

The reason is pretty obvious. Kenyans have a political crisis that is consuming most of their energy for the time being.

But that wasn’t enough to stop dozens of reporters and photographers from the international media trooping up to the Obama family farmstead a couple of weeks ago for Super Tuesday. In fact things there became so busy that Said Obama had to start taking bookings so that Granny Obama didn’t become exhausted.

Mama SarahWith her neat turn of phrase and broad smile, the 86-year-old has become something of a media darling. Just one problem. Sarah Hussein Obama is not Barack Obama’s grandmother. Step-grandmother or half-granny or adoptive gran, yes. But she’s not actually a blood relation. But why let that get in the way of a good story?

It’s just one of a number of myths that have grown up around Obama’s roots (and I use “grown up” slightly euphemistically). He’s not the son of a goatherd. He’s the son of a Harvard-educated economist who rose to prominence after independence, but ended up drunk, penniless and bitter. Friends saw Barack Obama Sr beat his third wife and warned him not to drive while drunk. It was a car accident that killed him.

Does any of this matter? Well, it would be nice if presidential candidates chose not to gloss over awkward personal histories. If Obama’s book, Dreams from my Father, is supposed to be about how the shadow of his absent father shaped a large part of his life then it would have been nice to have had the truth. But then again, how many people write memoirs without judicious use of selective memory?

So I guess my beef is as much with journalists who seem to think that African stories don’t merit the same sort of attention to detail as stories elsewhere. So she’s not his real grandmother. And Obama Sr was a goatherd only when he was a kid – much as you and I were paperboys or whatever. Well, it’s Africa. No-one will ever know, seems to be the refrain. And I just wonder whether Barack Obama isn’t guilty of the same thing.


10 thoughts on “African Myths and Obama Mania

  1. Obama does, in fact, mention (and examine) his father’s privileged position, and his subsequent slide into alcoholism Dreams from My Father; he can’t be accused of ‘gloss[ing] over awkward personal histories’. At least, not in the book.

  2. I used to say, “But see, there are examples of stable, democratic countries in Africa like Kenya and South Africa.”

    Then South Africa started saying Fruit was a viable cure for aids.

    Then the President of Kenya stole the election.

    I just sadly try to change the subject when people talk about Africa now, because I don’t see ANY countries that really don’t want to cut people’s limbs off with machetes.

  3. Oh, man! Oh, man! I think you should send this piece to the op-ed page of either Washington Post or New York Times! Every now and then CNN bombards us with the documentary they made a while back on Obama’s father’s village and the still able-bodied self-styled grandmother (as I just learned reading your post)! This is an outrage! In the meanwhile, in the same documentary, only a passing mention of Obama’s father is made. This is distortion bordering on the worst “intoxication” campaigns of the Pravda of old! But I think the Republican destruction machine is keeping a tab on the man, before “swiftboating” him in the general election under the general template of ” untrustworthy character.” I had my doubts about this sweet-talking politician, my BS detector having been wired and rewired under the populism of Mobutu… This should sound alarm belles to those celebrity-struck “obamaniacs”… Thanks a lot for the invaluable information, brother…

  4. I really enjoy reading your blog. I always find something interesting and thought provoking to mull over. This entry was the first time I’ve thought you were way off base. If you’ve read Barack Obama’s book or attended any of his excellent speeches (unlikely since you’re in Kenya), you would know that he doesn’t “gloss over awkward personal histories.” In fact, he’s very open and up front about his past, including his father’s struggle with alcoholism and his own previous drug use.

    I thought the linked Daily Mail article was absolute trash. It implied, more than it offered factual analysis. Are there official records that state that Barack’s father was drunk when he was killed in a car crash? I didn’t think so. Why does something like that even matter, when America finally has a fantastic presidential candidate? Don’t we have anything better to do than pick apart his book? I’m sure Team Clinton is all over that.

    Also, if you hate the fact that journalism about Africa tends to be badly researched, maybe you shouldn’t rely on it to make your argument.

  5. Your points about Obama are silly.

    Have you read his book? I doubt it. Obama wrote about his father’s alcoholism and bitter life and guess what? his father’s story is no different than the alcoholic fathers of Bill Clinton and Reagan.

    If you want to write about distortion of facts by your fellow journalists how about you write about how the right wing media has tried to tarnish Obama with all kinds of false allegations about his childhood?!

  6. I question what the significance of Obama’s past, that is to say his father, is in determining his competence. He is the only presidential candidate that even remotely mentions anything beyond Iraq and National Security in their platforms. In fact, he’s the only candidate that has discussed Darfur on his website. Regardless though, he inevitably has to face up the PR and win the vote to cause effective change.

  7. Certainly Ohbama is a Muslim person. No doubt about it. How little we know of his raising in different homes, his attendance in Madarassa, and his Wahabi connection. It is absolutely stupid to recognize that America could not produce a better Democratic candidate than Hillary and Edward. The negatives of both have led dems to go for Ohbama and this has nothing to do with his ability and much if not all has with his charisma. Once a Muslim always a Muslim. Muslims will rejoice more when he becomes the President.

  8. I agree with Daniel Waweru. It’s worthwhile reading Dreams from My Father, and not only because it is a very well-written and engrossing book. Although it is an admittedly “novelized” autobiography – to maintain its focus – none of the facts you mention (the bitterness, the drinking, the wifebeating) are glossed over. But Obama also writes that his father might have achieved greatness if Jomo Kenyatta hadn’t decided to break him simply because he said tribal strife was holding Kenya back (and happened to be a Luo).

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