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Summer 2008 online edition

The Myth of Barack Obama's Early Life

by Michael Patrick Leahy

page 4 of 9

His Kenyan wife, Kezia, bade him good bye at the Nairobi airport in the summer of 1959. They had been married in a tribal ceremony in January, 1957, an agreement that had been sealed when his father gave her father a dowry of fourteen cattle. She was three months pregnant with their first daughter Auma, and was responsible alone now for the care of their year and a half old son, Roy. (21)

Tom Mboya was a Luo tribesman like Barack Obama Senior, and a player in the national poltics of Kenya. He had traveled to the United States in early 1959 to persuade Americans to contribute to this fund, and he had been remarkably succesful in that effort. Kenya, he said, needed Kenyans to be trained in America, so that when independence came they would be capable of replacing the British bureaucrats and administrators who ran the country. Eight thousand Americans contributed to the fund, among them leaders of the black community including Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Jackie Robinson, the famous baseball player.

Barack Obama Senior was one of eighty one Tom Mboya scholars that year, along with his friend Phil Obeigwe. They had met for a send off party in Nairobi in Mboya's offices, and flew to America together. (22)

Their native land was still in the midst of political turmoil, the Mau Mau Rebellion in its last throes, but not sufficiently ended for the ruling British to end the state of emergency that had been going on for eight years. Still a British colony, plans for independence were already underway. In 1957, the British had allowed the election of native representatives to the legislature, and Jomo Kenyatta's Kenyan African Congress party, the radicals just shy of Communism, had won. Everyone knew that when independence won Jomo Kenyatta’s party would be in control.

Barack Obama Senior dreamed of earning a Phd. in the United States and returning to his native Kenya, there to be part of the new ruling elite of an independent country, governed by intelligent men like himself.

He was already vain, arrogant, self assured, capable of irritating his friends and fellow workers, and equally ready to drain a bottle of Scotch or finish off yet another pack of cigarettes. And he was ambitious for himself, ambitious to make money, and ambitious to secure glory and power. Perhaps he considered himself a future President of Kenya, a man around whom his own Luo tribe would rally, over the Kikuyu leader Jomo Kenyatta. Certainly his ego gave every indication that he thought himself capable of handling the job.

The two of them sat there in the Basic Russian class taught that year by one of the two Russian Language instructors on staff that semester, Ella Wiswell or Isabelle Tripianky, who were similar in both background and teaching style. Wiswell was a Russian emigre and talented linguist who for a while had been the only University of Hawaii Russian Language faculty member. Tripianky was also a Russian emigre, who like Wiswell had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris.

The class was held in old Hawaii Hall, and numbered about two dozen students in all, many filled with the dewy eyed idealism of American Cold Warriors who hoped to work as intelligence analysts for the CIA. Young Ann Dunham might have had such aspirations, or she might have been drawn to the class for other reasons. All undergraduates had a two year foreign language requirement, and Russian was the third most popular language to study, right behind French and Spanish, due to the political interest of the day.

Patricia Polansky, who is still at the University of Hawaii where she is employed as the Bibliographer for the Russian Language Department, took the same Basic Russian course at the University of Hawaii three years later in 1963, and remembers the course well.

Ella Wiswell was considered a very tough teacher....but, I found the classes good--no nonsense. I don't think the teaching was considered innovative. It was pretty routine; I You had a chapter to study to prepare for the next class, and then we went over it in class. We were also required to attend a language lab three times a week where we listened tothe lessons spoken in Russian and could practice speaking. In 1963 I don't remember that we had any foreign exchange students in the class. I don't think it was so common. Definitely, if there were Africans, Europeans., or even"haoles" from the mainland, they stood out from the local kids. The problem here is that we probably had then and still do...lots of foreign students from Asian countries (China, Korea,Japan, Southeast Asia).... but they blend right in with the local kids....hard to tell them apart. I'm not sure what students were going to do with Russian.....The problem was fulfilling the undergraduate requirement of two years of a foreign language. At the time Spanish and French were the most popular, but I think Russian might have been next due to the political interest. (23)

Barack Obama Senior's interest in the class seemed to make far more sense. As a future member of the Kenyan government's technocratic elite, the ability to speak both English and Russian, the languages of the two countries vying for influence and control over his native land would certainly give him a leg up in the competition among returning scholars for plum jobs back home.

He was as pitch black as she was lilly white.

His presence must have stuck out in the class from the first day, and Dunham could not have helped but notice the charismatic and self confident Kenyan.
Neil Abercrombie, who today is a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives representing Hawaii, was a graduate student at the University of Hawaii at the time, and knew them both.

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Michael Patrick Leahy is the author of Letter to an Atheist, and Managing Editor of Christian Faith and Reason Magazine.

Comments are welcome. All comments will be read, not all comments will be posted. We may invite authors of the best comments to respond in full articles, to be published in our November edition.

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