Education of Auma Obama
I was in Kenya at the time of Barack Obama’s election to US
President back in 2008. Actually, I was in Uganda on the night of his election
– in a cheap Kampala hotel room with mosquitos buzzing my face and The World
Tonight’s Robin Lustig whispering sweet US political nothings into my ears.
Kampala is only a short hop round the northern shore of Lake Victoria from the
Obama family’s native Luoland and what, I would imagine, was a hell of a party
when he was voted in.

Four years on, as Obama fights the battle of his political
life, I watched The Education of Auma Obama, a film about a different
family member – the President’s half sister – as she returns to Kenya in 2008
to watch his election and to be, in her own words, “back where it all started.”
Obama, even at the height of his 2008 popularity in the US,
has always been more popular abroad than at home. This reached a new level in
Kenya, where he is something of a messianic figure. In a country better known
for political inertia (it has known just 3 Presidents since independence) or
disaster (the last elections in 2007/08 brought severe ethnic violence and
rigging), such unambiguous success from one of its sons is not treated lightly.
But, save for a few home movie clips towards the end where
we see a now unfamiliar image of a relaxed Obama (head resting on Michelle’s
knee), this is not about Barack. Rather, it is about Auma who, on the whole,
comes across as a more complex and conflicted figure. She is the product of Barack
Obama senior’s (the President’s deceased father) ‘other’ life. This is the life
which remained in Kenya whilst Barack Snr went off to study in America. It is
now most often illustrated by the presence of his maternal grandmother, ‘Mama
Sarah’, about whom Martin Robbins in the Guardian somewhat cynically
stated: ‘the woman a young Barack called ‘Granny’ has become embedded in
Kenya’s national mythology in much the same way that Pippa Middleton has become
embedded in the pages of Heat magazine.’
Auma is, however, better equipped to narrate the history the
Obama family than   her grandmother. Her questioning of family
members and friends is meaningful, insistent and serious. This is a
micro-social history, something that the old Luo women who sit and cook and
gossip in the Obama compound are well familiar with: who married who and how
were the children cared for, did the parents approve? A complex genealogy of
Kenyan life disrupted by the addition of a white woman in to the family and
Barack Senior’s trips to America.
Obama Senior’s marriage to Ann Dunham is where the
US-focused narrative normally begins. Auma is, however, more interested in the
Kenyan side of the family. We are, consequently, introduced to the strict and
conservative patriarch – Hussein Obama – who became a cook in a wealthy
American household and constructed a well-ordered homelife from which his
children could build modern lives in colonial Kenya. Barack Senior is portrayed
as an imposing, intelligent figure with a fierce pride in his country, but
distant as a father.
What The Eductaion of Auma Obama conveys well is
the cultural millieu inhabited by a generation of young Kenyans who went out in
to the world, and were profoundly changed by their experiences. Whilst Barack
Senior was studying in the US and building a life with Ann Dunham, he remained
married to 2 Kenyan women, including Kezia, now an old lady, who tells us he
had fallen in love with her when she was just 14 – quite a contrast to the
American social norms Barack would later inhabit.
Auma herself left Kenya with great excitement after
graduating from secondary school and went on to study in Heidelberg, Germany in
the early 1980s.  There she found a niche as an African cultural critic
whilst completing a PhD in cultural studies. Some of the best moments of the
film are the archive footage of her debating with an austere set of German
intellectuals the meaning of African culture, purpose of aid or injustices
within the world economic system.
Barack has commented that Auma had a strong influence on him
in rediscovering his Kenyan roots, something he has never been shy in
acknowledging as the United States’ first African-American President. However,
The President has never entirely convinced that his affection for Kenya is
anything other than romantic. In this documentary he remains a peripheral
presence, literally just a cardboard cut out which his extended family hold up,
dance around and carry over to the graves of his father and grandfather.
Auma, however, stares meaningfully in to the middle
distance, determined to figure out to where and what she belongs.


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