Monday, March 30, 2009

Continuing with the Life of Hussein Onyango Obama

Settling in another part of Siaya, Hussein Onyango Obama marries a second wife and in 1936 Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. (President Obama's Father) is born. Soon after, Hussein Onyanga Obama heads off to World War II.

I interviewed a few men in Tanzania back in 1986-87 that had, also, signed on to fight Vita vya Hitla (the War with Hitler, as it is called by Swahili speakers in east Africa). Most of my students seem surprised by this. I guess it just doesn't fit our stereotypes of the African victim.

Like the men I interviewed, Hussein Onyango Obama ended up in Burma. The men from Kenya were more likely to have actually served in Burma in the capacity pictured above. Tanzanian men were, as Saidi Mohammed Suwapanga (one of my informants) told me, less likely to be on the "front line" and more likely to be on the "middle line". Mzee Suwapanga, intially, unloaded foods from ships in various ports and loaded water onto ships in others. He did not volunteer for this service but was instead taken by force--conscripted into a war he didn't entirely understand. No one bothered much to explain where he was taken as he traveled from port to port. He believes that he went from Egypt to Ceylon and then to India and, finally, to Burma. Make no mistake about Mzee Suwapanga's understandings. I have a detailed list of the amounts of pay he received for each month of his service. British officials simply believed that he need not know where he was bound and for what purpose. I recall his rather poignant observation that when he arrived in Burma and set to work digging trenches that he "saw the War for the first time." He stopped and corrected, himself, "no, I smelt it...I smelt the gunpowder even while digging."

When Mzee Suwapanga was finally sent home his pockets were full with a 1,050 shilling lump sum payment. He had planned to buy a bicycle to begin a small business but he returned to a country "smelling hunger" and all his money went to purchase food at highly inflated prices.

Like Mzee Suwapanga, Hussein Onyango Obama returned with money in his pockets and dreams of a future in his head. Returning African veterans expected...something. A life? A future? Respect? A opportunity..maybe just the right to be a man. And they did not get it. Colonial policy wasn't set up for that. Africans were to be subsistence farmers and manual laborers, they were forbidden to own businesses, own and develop land, start bank accounts...the list of prohibitions, nos, refusals, and disrespect is long. They could, however, pay taxes..had to, in fact. Hussein Onyango Obama, eventually, found work as a cook for a white man in Nairobi and a forum for political involvement.

Next up Mau Mau....


morgan said...

this is really interesting: I don't know enough at all about Africa, this is a great opportunity to get people to see that African history affects us after all.

Pamthropologist said...

It is a great teachable moment.