The Tragic Life of Barack Obama’s Father
Barack Obama Sr. left behind his young son, Barack Obama Jr., and divorced wife in Hawaii, and an unfinished economics degree from Harvard. He returned to a Kenya that had just achieved independence after a lengthy and violent contest.
When Barack Obama returned to Nairobi, he found his homeland almost unrecognizable. In the five years that he had been gone, Kenya had been transformed from a beleaguered colony choked by imperial regulations and restrictions into a proudly independent nation churning with excitement as the transfer of political and financial power into African hands was finalized.
Obama was swept up into a surge of young men and women who returned from schooling overseas and were confronted with the task of creating a nation of their own. Although it would take years to alter some of the social and economic structures that were colonial legacies, thousands of the 56,000 Europeans who were in the country at the time of independence had already fled, apprehensive about how the new government might treat them. So too did a large portion of the city’s nearly 177,000 Asians, who had long dominated the local business scene.
With college and immigration officials no longer keeping an eye on his doings, Obama reveled in the city’s burgeoning social life as never before.
Even among the Nairobi men, Obama stood out. Dressed in elegant silk ties and tailored suits from Peermohammed, one of the city’s finest clothing shops, Obama was careful that no upcountry dust dull his perennially polished shoes. The Sportsman cigarettes of the old days had been replaced with the more refined Benson and Hedges, and Johnnie Walker Black was now his drink of choice. Obama made it no secret that he preferred the company of educated men, and he referred to those he considered inferior as “intellectual dwarfs,” only partly in jest. If one dared to speak Swahili in his company, a swift reprimand would often be forthcoming.
Only English—and proper English at that—would do. “You had to meet certain criteria,” recalled Obama’s childhood friend Peter Aringo, a former member of Parliament who served six terms. “Obama wanted you to rise up to his standards.”
Plunging into conversations about the latest government proclamation or political promotion, Obama often found a way to refer to his Harvard training. He insisted on being called Dr. Obama, despite his incomplete dissertation. Few were aware that Obama was a Dr. in his imagination alone. Anyway, it was more than sufficient that he had any Harvard degree at all. Only a handful of Kenyans could claim such a distinction, and Obama played it frequently, demanding, “Where were you when I was getting my training at Harvard?” He was, as Aringo recalls it, “the big voice from Harvard, and he let everyone know that.”
When he arrived at the dim bar at Brunner’s Hotel or pulled up a chair at the trendy Sans Chique, where he was a regular, he routinely trumpeted his standard order. “A double round of scotch,” he would say, lingering over a word he seemed to relish. He would then promptly order a chaser of another round of the same—two more shots of scotch. And thus did Obama earn himself the nickname “Double-Double.”
Even in Nairobi’s hard-drinking culture of the time, Obama was at the head of the pack in his alcoholic intake. By the count of some of his bar mates, Obama could down four “double-doubles”—or sixteen shots—at a sitting and still walk out of the bar. Never a big eater, Obama would reluctantly put down his glass for a plate of ugali and roasted meat or, one of his preferred dishes, sukuma wiki, a mix of leafy greens and tomatoes. “We drank quite often together and we went home not in a very nice condition. Sometimes he had trouble getting home at all,” recalled Philip Ochieng, then a columnist for the Nation. “Barack was always outspoken, very jocular. He liked people. But he was a lot about himself. He was arrogant, but it was a very seductive arrogance. Not unpleasant at all. He had big ambitions, big unrealistic dreams. He just needed to dominate, and that is what caused so many problems for him.”
For some, the newly minted Obama was an acquired taste. Like many African men of the time, he did not traffic much in personal talk. Only a handful of his closest associates knew of his son in Hawaii or much about his children back in Kogelo. Although he craved social interaction, he held himself apart, as though unwilling to be known or to know too much. It was as though the booming interrogations and prideful claims were intended to set a listener back, to keep him from coming too close. But those who understood Obama’s style knew that the thumping bravado and interrogatory dialogue was his particular way of engaging. And once the cross-examination was done, there were drinks for all. Obama was famously generous at the bar, and he frequently ordered rounds for everyone to be put on his tab, even in later years when he could ill afford to do so. His favorite barroom prank was to send his bill to someone else at the bar, particularly if he spotted someone of high rank. Obama took particular pleasure in sending his tabs to [government minister] Tom Mboya himself or to [politician] Mwai Kibaki.
That his targets paid up was a good measure of the tolerant fondness with which many regarded him.
The city’s beckoning barrooms were not the only new development that won Obama’s attention. He was equally smitten with the sleek sedans cruising the city’s streets, often available for bargain prices from departing colonists eager to shed their belongings. For a while after he returned, Obama proudly ferried a large green Mercedes from his Rosslyn home to Shell’s downtown offices. Ed Benjamin, a Boston lawyer who had been impressed by Obama’s sophisticated repartee when he met him at a Cambridge cocktail party in the spring of 1964, wound up in Nairobi on a business trip not long after Obama returned to Kenya. When Benjamin called him on the phone from his room in the posh New Stanley hotel, Obama promptly offered to give him a tour of the city. “He said he would be by in an hour and to look for him in a brand new Mercedes,” recalled Benjamin.
“He was obviously quite proud of that car. He drove us around, showed us the sights and told us where to have dinner. He was very gracious. Very charming. He was obviously an extremely bright and elegant guy.”
On his return to the villages of his childhood, Obama came laden with gifts. There was colored fabric, bags of potatoes and guavas, and, for the luckiest child of all, a pair of shoes. In the eyes of the villagers, Obama was one of the biggest men around, and they anticipated his visits with excitement.
His message was always the same. “He always, always talked about education, that was the thing he valued most of all,” said Ezra Obama, a first cousin whose own education Obama paid for in large part. “Later he would tell me, the best thing you can do for your children is get them an education. Don’t save the money for them for later. Get them an education. If you give them that, you’ve given them everything.”
Obama may not have entirely expected that his Cambridge girlfriend would follow him to Kenya, but only five weeks after he left Cambridge, Ruth Baker made up her mind to take him up on the invitation that he had laid before her. Her decision was a most improbable act of faith. Since graduating from Simmons College as a business major in 1958, Ruth had trod a conventional path. As befitted her role as a member of the school’s honor board, she had always been keen on doing the right thing—or at least trying to figure out what that was. She had worked as a legal assistant for a Boston lawyer for a couple of years and then tried her hand teaching the sixth grade in a suburban school. A tall young woman with a straightforward manner, “Ruthie” was not a particularly adventurous sort as far as her friends were concerned. But she was nothing if not determined. Her doting parents in nearby Newton kept a close eye on their well-mannered daughter who lived with some girlfriends on tony Beacon Hill. And although she embarked on a number of blind dates, Ruth was neither a dreamer nor a romantic. And so when Ruth announced to her elementary school friend Judy Epstein that she was considering following her African lover to Nairobi, Epstein was shocked.
Obama was immensely proud of his bride-to-be. Mzungu [foreign] wives were still rare, and in general only those of advanced education and means could claim such a trophy. He took her around town and dropped in on some of his most prominent associates to show her off. Visiting his old Kendu Bay friend Samuel O. Ayodo, a member of Mboya’s inner circle who served as Minister of Natural Resources and Wildlife, Obama clapped him on the back and excitedly insisted, “‘Tell Ruth that my father is a king and my family is very, very important.’ We just laughed,” recalled Ayodo’s widow, Damaris Ayodo. “He really wanted to impress her.”
He also wanted to use her to impress other people. As with his Harvard degree, Obama did not hesitate to brandish his pretty white wife with the Boston accent. At times Obama jokingly refused to let a friend pull up a stool next to him at a bar, saying, “You can’t sit next to me. Don’t you know that I’m married to a mzungu, you stupid African.” And when he encountered a colleague who was married to a white woman, Obama would throw his arm around his shoulders, exclaiming that he was “my in-law.”
The couple moved into a stately home in Rosslyn, a predominantly white neighborhood in Nairobi that was lush with sprawling purple jacaranda trees and trim green hedges. Like many of the spacious estates located northwest of the city, Rosslyn had long been the exclusive province of Europeans. Now a handful of Africans were trickling in. Not all family members were so pleased with Obama’s new domestic situation, however. Hussein Onyango [his father] stormed into the house one morning and adamantly insisted that Obama take his first wife, Kezia, into his home along with their two children. If his son could not respect his first wife in such a way, then at least he could establish a separate home for her as any good Luo would do.
But Obama refused. Obama was an educated man now, and though he was eager to have his children join him, he told his friends he had no intention of living “like an African” with multiple wives at a time. Although Ruth agreed to have the children live with them, as she had promised Obama she would back in Cambridge, she was horrified at the notion that his first wife would join them as well. She would just as soon not meet Kezia at all. But the proposal was only one of many aspects of life in Nairobi that she was finding difficult, as did more than a few other white women who had met their African husbands in the West.
These young women were quickly learning that husbands who had seemed highly Westernized back home soon reverted to deeply ingrained tribal customs when back on African soil. Kenyan men generally went out drinking at bars or nightclubs without their wives and were absent for long periods of time. They did little in the way of domestic chores, and many presumed broad sexual freedoms, taking mistresses or even second wives as due course. Young women, who had expected a position of some respect in their new marriages, suddenly found that they had quite lowly status. As Celia Nyamweru, a young British graduate student doing field research in Kenya in the mid-1960s, wrote in an essay on her experiences, “Often these young women received fairly rude awakenings when marital relationships that had started happily between graduate students or young professionals had to be renegotiated under circumstances where most of the power lay on the husband’s side.”
Nor were these young wives the only ones who found the situation stressful. For the Kenyan men, the demands of their new lives were also profound. On the one hand, they were urban professionals under pressure to provide for a vast extended network of family members back home who still had very little. But they were also still deeply rooted in the culture and ways of the bush, and what their role was in either locale or exactly how to bridge the gap was not always clear. Were they Kenyan villagers or downtown professionals? With one foot firmly placed in Luoland and another on Harambee Avenue, Obama in particular struggled to find his balance.
In their first few months together Obama and Ruth lived much as they had in Cambridge. Ruth got a job as a secretary at the Nation newspaper while Obama applied his new econometric skills to the job at Shell. After work, they often went dancing at the new Starlight nightclub, the city’s hotspot, featuring Congolese music and an eclectic crowd reflecting Nairobi’s increasingly diverse population. Well aware that his moves were electrifying, Obama could not resist twirling Ruth extravagantly across the center of the dance floor as a small crowd clapped in appreciation. Some nights the couple danced until the early hours of the following morning.
So bleary-eyed was Ruth by the time she got to work that her bosses let her go after only three months. “We were out all night so I wasn’t getting any sleep,” sighed Ruth. “I was exhausted. Oh, God, I was in a mess, you know. I could not focus on anything.”
However, Ruth began quite quickly to notice changes in Obama. Some nights he drank so much he could barely make it to the car and Ruth was afraid to let him drive them home. As he worked increasingly long hours, he often did not come home from work until well after midnight, stumbling to the door reeking of whiskey and perfume. At times he shouted at her with rage, calling her slow and stupid. And one night he astonished her with the news that he not only had been married a second time, but had a young son in Hawaii. “He just said he had a little son there and he was very proud of him,” said Ruth. “He had a little picture of him on his tricycle with a hat on his head. And he kept that picture in every house that we lived in. He loved his son. He never mentioned the wife, though. I knew nothing about her. But none of that bothered me. As I said, I was in love with a capital ‘L’ and that was that. I didn’t know anything about anything.”
Despite Ruth’s growing misgivings and Obama’s own ambivalence, which he shared only with a handful of friends, the couple decided to get married by the end of the year. Propelled by the turbulent currents of their love affair, for either one of them to turn back would have been difficult.
Ruth could hardly face returning to America and the failure that would have signified. Nor could Obama easily surrender the wife who had given him such cachet. And, in at least some respects, they still shared the intense passion that had consumed them back in Cambridge. So on Christmas Eve of 1964 they stood before a justice of the peace in the city registrar’s office as two of their friends looked on. The service was strictly bare bones. There was no ring, no gifts. As she reached out to take Obama’s hand before the ceremony began, Ruth hesitated for an instant. “I was thinking, should I really marry this guy?” recalled Ruth. “I mean, how long was this going to last? I just had a feeling it was risky. But, you know, I went ahead with it.”