Michela Wrong

Lucky miss

In Dreams From My Father, his exploration of race and roots, Barack Obama recalled the tales heard in childhood about the man who gave him his name.

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The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father

Sally H. Jacobs

Public Affairs, pp. 297, £

In Dreams From My Father, his exploration of race and roots, Barack Obama recalled the tales heard in childhood about the man who gave him his name. His father, they said, was a brilliant economist who grew up herding goats in western Kenya, then won a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, where he fell in love with a white woman. ‘There was only one problem: my father was missing. Nothing my mother or grandparents told me could obviate that single, unassailable fact.’

My boy, I thought on finishing this book, you have no idea how lucky you were. Sociologists may worry about the impact absent fathers are having on a generation of young black men robbed of male role models. But there are worse things in life than being abandoned by your father. Having him stick around, for example, when he is the kind of man depicted in these pages.

Barack Obama Sr was certainly charming, dashing, clever and sexy. He was also, according to Sally Jacobs, a bar-room bore, a man with a huge chip on his shoulder, an enthusiastic wife-beater, an official ready to pocket the odd bribe, and a man whose goatish interest in the opposite sex was only matched by his addiction to Johnnie Walker: he was nicknamed ‘Double-Double’ in tribute to the way he ordered scotch. The US president met Dad only once — at the age of ten — and one shudders to think how he might have turned out had the paternal hand rested any heavier on the boy’s shoulders.

He was a Luo, a member of the Nilotic ethnic group that skirts Lake Victoria. The son of a curmudgeonly colonial cook, he was spoilt at home and proved a brilliant but rebellious pupil. As an adult, he befriended the inspirational Luo politician Tom Mboya and despite failing to qualify for the latter’s famous US airlifts, won a college place in Honolulu — a remarkable feat back in 1959. Even more mould-breaking was his marriage to Ann Dunham, only 18 when she fell pregnant with the current president.

Offered a scholarship to Harvard, he had no compunction about leaving his new family behind, just as he had already quietly done with a wife and children back in Kenya. In later life ‘Dr’ Obama would never cease boasting about his Harvard education, sneering at contemporaries supposedly less qualified. In fact, he never completed his doctorate, sent down by the authorities when they got wind of his many marriages and relentless womanising.

Exiled to newly independent Kenya, where posts were being Africanised, Obama felt he deserved a prominent position in government. But the odds were against anyone whose name started with an ‘O’: founding president Jomo Kenyatta was a member of the Kikuyu, an ethnic group that regarded the Luo as implacable rivals. Obama did not exactly help his prospects by heaping scorn on official economic policy, turning up to work hungover, bouncing cheques and endlessly complaining about his colleagues. By the age of 34, he had already lost three promising jobs. He took his frustrations out on Ruth Baker, his second American wife, beating her regularly when he returned home drunk, sometimes with a girlfriend on his arm.

I had expected to dip briefly into this tale of hubris, but found myself strangely mesmerised, hooked until the end. With the meticulousness characteristic of a certain breed of American foreign correspondent, Sally Jacobs pulls off an impressive double-hander of her own, painting a detailed portrait of an emerging African nation while tracking the dogged self-destruction of a braggadocio crippled by the conviction of his own superiority.

There was clearly something about Obama Sr that touched the heart. Bosses shrugged off sackable offences — he would brazenly impersonate superiors to impress strangers — and colleagues chose to ignore the stink of alcohol on his breath. He kept on marrying, fathering children he could not support, then cuckolding the wife of the day. And yet the women forgave him.

His end, at only 46, smashed against a tree stump, was grimly predictable. Jacobs reports that some relatives suspect foul play. Kenya does have a history of political assassinations, often camouflaged as car crashes, but a man who had already broken both his legs and killed a passenger while drunk at the wheel was clearly driving for a fall.

We all know how the sons of bitter, violent fathers like this can turn out: social services are kept busy with the victims of their rage. Child-rearing still remains largely women’s work, and if Obama Jr grew up to become a loyal husband and loving father — as appears to be the case — thanks lies with a remarkable mother and supportive grandparents. Sometimes, what a youngster isn’t exposed to during his formative years is just as important as what he is.