Editor’s Note: Midway through this evocative memoir, Auma Obama (the author and Kenyan half-sister of President Barack Obama) meets her brother for the first time. They are both in their early 20s. Auma has traveled to Chicago after having exchanged several letters with the brother she only knew as “Barry” and is pleasantly surprised at the bond they quickly develop through long conversations about their father.
Our father was someone from whom everyone expected too much,” I said, when we had finished eating. “He didn’t know how to defend himself against the many demands made on him. His sense of duty toward the larger Obama family was very strong. But the reverse was unfortunately not always the case.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked Barack. We were now sitting in his living room. While we ate, I had tried to explain to my brother the phenomenon of the “chosen ones,” for he just couldn’t understand how a single person could be expected to assume responsibility for an extended family.
“I understand that it’s hard for you to grasp,” I replied. “I basically feel the same way. But it’s simply what our tradition requires. There were times when there wasn’t even enough money for my school fees, and I had to watch our father give away everything he had left to a relative. He was always confident that we would somehow get by.” Against my will, my words had sounded despondent.
“Did you ever object to that?” Barack asked sympathetically.
“Not really. As an African child, you’re brought up not to argue with your parents or criticize them. But even if you dared to raise objections, our father always answered with the words: ‘I’ll take care of everything.’” I sighed. “It was difficult with him. For just as he helped others, he expected that people would help him too when it was necessary.”
“And that didn’t happen?”
“Not really, in comparison to what he provided,” I replied.
“Even relatives he supported for many years were not always willing to help him?” Barack looked at me uncomprehendingly.
“The old man, as our father was always called, was a prisoner of his own principles. He didn’t want to back away from his position, according to which you always, whatever situation you were in at the moment, had to provide for the extended family. I found that this could lead too easily to exploitation and dependence. Those who had nothing didn’t really feel responsible for getting themselves out of their misery.”
It was already pretty late, and Barack had to go to work early the next day. I had the impression, however, that he would have liked best to keep talking all night. But he looked tired. And I, too, was tired from talking so much.
“Let’s continue tomorrow, Barack,” I said. “We still have several days ahead of us.” With those words, I stood up and stretched. My brother showed me how to convert his pullout sofa into a bed. Before he disappeared into his bedroom, I hugged him once again at the end of that unforgettable day and said good night.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said with an earnest expression.
The next morning, we got up early. Barack took me with him to his office to show me where he worked. He also wanted to introduce me to his colleagues.
We entered a rather bleak-looking neighborhood. Flat-roofed, bungalow-like houses stood close together. Not far away from there, apartment buildings with gray façades and dark entrances rose up. Everything looked rundown and impoverished, entirely different than in the part of Chicago I had seen on my arrival. Barack explained that we were “in the projects.”
“These are residential areas in which affordable housing is built for the lowest income groups and for welfare recipients. The people who live here have only a very low income or none at all and rely on public assistance.”
“It looks really poor here,” I remarked, surprised. I had a somewhat naive, ideal image of America in my head, the cliché of wealth and prosperity in the States that is widespread in my native country—but not only there.
“The people are poor, too. And unfortunately, most of them are black,” Barack went on. It pained me to hear that. In Germany, I fought daily against the many prejudices toward us black people, particularly against the idea that we were all in need of help. So I was not happy to hear now that this was actually how things were for a lot of black people in the United States.
“And what do you do here?” I asked Barack, eager to hear what solution he offered these people with his work.
“I try to help the poor people in this area deal with the authorities so that they receive the support they’re legally entitled to.”
We had parked in front of a building that looked like a church community center. Barack explained to me that he worked for a priest and that his office and his colleagues’ offices were in this community center. We went in through a side entrance, and shortly thereafter, we stood in a large, very simply furnished room teeming with people. Barack went from one person to another and introduced me to his colleagues. Everyone greeted me very warmly. Afterward, he led me into a room. He wanted me to meet his boss, an older white man with a charismatic aura. Finally, he showed me his own small workstation.
I liked the atmosphere in the community center. Everyone gave the impression that they believed in what they were doing. Their commitment was palpable. After we had stayed there for a while longer, so Barack could take care of a few things, he showed me the projects and described his work to me in detail. Meanwhile, we kept returning to the subject of our families. He told me about his little sister Maya, his mother’s second child. Maya’s father was Indonesian, and she lived with her maternal grandmother in Hawaii.
“You’ll like her,” he said. “She’s charming.” It sounded as if he loved her. Might he talk about me the same way one day? I thought fleetingly.
“My mother lives in Indonesia. She’s diligently doing research there for her dissertation,” Barack went on with a laugh. “And I think she’ll stay there for a long time. She loves the country and simply can’t stop pursuing her research. Anthropology is her life.” As he said that, he shook his head with amusement, as if he had long ago given up the attempt to understand her.
“I’d like to meet her. I’ve heard a lot about her from our father.”
“Did he talk about her? What did he say?” Barack asked with curiosity.
“Only good things. After Ruth [their father’s second American wife] left, he kept promising us that you and your mother would come visit us in Kenya.” I smiled somewhat wearily. “I believed him and waited a long time in vain for your visit.”
Barack looked at me with astonishment. “I knew absolutely nothing about that,” he replied after a brief silence.
“They wrote to each other. But you know that, right? Your mother always sent him your school report cards and regularly told him how you were doing. He always knew what was going on with you. He told us and anyone who would listen about you. From his descriptions, I knew you pretty well. So I thought at the time, anyway.”
I couldn’t interpret the expression on Barack’s face, but I nonetheless had the sense that what I had just said moved him.
“But that wasn’t enough,” he said finally.