Peter Firstbrook's account of Obama's roots, "The Obamas"

February 4, 2011

THE OBAMAS

The Untold Story of an African Family

By Peter Firstbrook

Crown. 333 pp. $26

Even at this halfway point in his presidency, Barack Obama already belongs to the publishing ages. The sweeping and poignant arc of his life - and his race-defying presidency - guarantees that books upon books will be written about him. We've already seen a healthy number. There have been tomes, but mostly the books are Teddy White-like riffs by journalists offering behind-the-scenes accounts of campaign intrigue or life in the White House.

In "The Obamas," Peter Firstbrook, a British documentary filmmaker turned writer, all but ignores the American side of the Obama story and plows into the Kenyan landscape, and family genealogy, of the Obama clan. (The president's father, Barack Obama Sr., was Kenyan, a member of the Luo tribe.) Firstbrook has written a strange and well-meaning hybrid of a book. There are long stretches of oral histories, as given by close and distant Obama relatives and buttressed with often numbing historical detail on Kenyan wars and tribal political intrigues. You will learn not only about those intrepid explorers, Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone, but also far more than you need to about the ritual of lower tooth extraction for Luo boys.

Firstbrook himself is nothing if not intrepid. He starts this journey into Kenya and Obamaland with both a driver and a translator. He goes to those remote villages where President Obama's kin - or close friends of kin - live. His hosts, a talkative and seemingly ageless and numberless bunch, set out the cups of brew and get to reminiscing. These days, entertaining visiting writers is almost a cottage trade for the Obamas of Kenya. "John Ndalo," writes Firstbrook, "a close Obama relative from Kendu Bay, vividly recalls the stories of cattle plague and famine that his father and grandfathers had experienced: 'Many homes lost their family. People were fighting, and if you had even a little food, people would come in a great number and invade your family and take everything away. For those whose cattle survived, we organized raids and went in big numbers with spears and arrows . . . and bring back their cattle."

Hussein Onyango Obama - and yes, that first name sent Americans of a certain mindset into fits of apoplexy during the presidential campaign - was President Obama's grandfather. He was born into the Kenya of British rule and endured the decades-long pains of colonialism. One Obama relative portrays Hussein Onyango as an activist who stood up to the British.

Firstbrook also tracks down Hawa Auma Hussein Onyango Obama, Hussein's daughter and the late Barack Obama Sr.'s sister. (President Obama's father died in Nairobi in 1982 in a car accident.) She hawks bits of coal on a roadside in the little town of Oyugis. Hawa Auma said to Firstbrook: "I am the daughter of Hussein Onyango Obama and the sister of Barack Obama Sr. and the aunt of the president. His first child was Sarah Nyaoke, the second was Barack, and the third is me. I was born in 1942 in the Kendu Bay area. We migrated to K'ogelo when I was still young. I was still being fed on the breast." This and other stiff, oral history-like quotes captured by Firstbrook slow down the narrative.

But the book gains momentum when Barack Obama Sr. appears. He struts into view as a mischievous young man, quick to disappoint his father, wild for the ladies, a superb dancer and charmer. He also possessed a dream to get out of Africa and study abroad. Already married, he landed in the United States in 1959 and met Ann Dunham, a white native Kansan, in Honolulu. They married in February 1961, and she gave birth to their son, Barack, on Aug. 4, 1961.

But it is not what happened in America that is the point of this assiduous book, which will surely be helpful to future Obama scholars. It is the telling of the story of a large and extended African family that has played a significant and unforgettable role in history across two continents. In the end, Firstbook himself seems a bit dizzied by all the genealogy. There are so many Obamas, so many colliding stories. Just how embellished are some of these memories? At one point Firstbrook gathers some elder Obama members with some historians to continue the debate. He writes the scene straightforwardly when it all but screams for a little Evelyn Waugh, a little Wole Soyinka.

haygoodw@washpost.com

Wil Haygood, who has traveled extensively in Kenya as a foreign correspondent, is the author of five nonfiction books, the most recent being "Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson."

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