Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hussein Onyango Obama: A Brief Life History


Before I became a victim of the Australian flu, I had been pretty busy with non-blog activities. Ever notice how Spring semester is ten times busier than Fall? Anyway, my institution always has an annual Faculty Symposium. We set aside a day for faculty to present some special interest subject--something they might be working on or we get together and do panel presentations. Some faculty bring their classes and we, usually, have a good time. This year I did two.

I always feel I have to do something on Africa. Readers of this blog know that I take seriously any opportunity to expose students to anything current which will dispel their comfortable stereotypes. I always feel I have to argue against some prevailing view of ignorance.

There was a big pile of ignorance this year. And it was steaming.

The preliminary program went around and our uber-right wing red state government guy decided his contribution would be "B. Hussein Obama and the Death of America". There was no irony in this title. He meant it just as written. I understand he handed out Kool-aid and gave a talk on the loss of our liberty under our new socialist President.

I had my work cut out for me finding a subtle, academic way to whack the shit out of the fool.

I decided to investigate that "Hussein" in our President's name and try to explain the very African story behind that choice. Readers of the blog will recall my daughter sent back pictures of the Obama tree in Zanzibar this summer on her visit there. You may recall that Obama's grandfather went there sometime around World War I and returned with a new wife, new religion, and the new name.

I hadn't read any of Obama's books and it was a new area of exploration for me but my area of academic specialty is East Africa and I felt pretty confident I could find a talk there somewhere. It turns out that Obama's Grandfather--he of the "Hussein" fame--had a really fascinating life history. I had a great time tracing his life. I'll start some of the details in this post. Its amazing how much his life contains all the teachable moments of a colonial Kenya; really of a wider Africa. And how much it reminded me of my fieldwork.

First, Onyango Obama was born in about 1895 the same year that what would become Kenya became a protectorate known as British East Africa (file away that that territory includes Zanzibar). He was born in the Siaya area. The Africanists among us will immediately recognize the district from that wonderful monograph by David Cohen and Atieno Odhiambo, Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape.

For those of you who don't know, we lost Atieno recently. Having battled valiantly against cancer, he returned home (leaving his home in Houston where he taught at Rice)to Siaya and passed away just last month. You may leave well wishes at his web site here.

The monograph on Siaya is just a wonderful book. I was happy to have the opportunity to revisit it, again. From it, you learn that Siaya is a labour reserve area. An arid region, subject to drought which many a young man left in search of money and alternative routes to power under a new colonial regime. You can find a really fascinating online exhibit on the region and the Luo people who live there at the Pitt Rivers Museum site. This photograph of a father and son seemed, particularly, useful in situating the context of the dreams of a young Onyango Obama as he left his own father and land on his journey to Zanzibar--an unconventional decision, I might add. Most young men went west to Uganda:


The picture dates to 1902, not far off young Onyango's journey to the coast. The few years may have added some cloth to the visual of a typical "inland look" of symbols of the slave trade--cowrie shells and metal bands--but any way you look at it, Zanzibar must have been quite a sight to see for this young man. A solidly British territory during World War I, having been taken during the shortest war on record in 1896, Zanzibar is quite a special place today, as it no doubt was when Onyango Obama ended up there. Once there, all we know with certainty is that he married a wife, adopted a religion and took the name Hussein to signify the change.

And then he returned home as almost all African men in the colonial period did. Once back in Siaya, there was some reported difficulties with his father. Not hard to imagine the young man who traveled to the other end of the known world having difficulty settling in to the role of young and powerless man under the thumb of the all-powerful elder. Coming home with a new world view is always difficult, how much so in this case? Its a bit uncomfortable to speculate on the president's grandfather's penis but it is worth the momentary disconnect. The Luo don't circumcise (the Kikuyu do) and Islam comes close to requiring it. Did Hussein Onyango Obama give up ethnicity in favor of religion? Did it cost him? What price difference?

But his story is far from over........

2 comments:

Cro-Magnon Man said...

quite fascinating! From one anthro to another...I thoroughly enjoy your posts, keep up the great work!
BTW, did you "deliver" in rebuking the Right Winger??

Pamthropologist said...

Thanks. I really did get into his life story--it is really fascinating. And you know I had no effect on the doof. I hear he played Pink Floyd and said that Obama was just another socialist brick in the wall.