My Little Brother, The President
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, we hear from a woman whose story is her own and yet is the story of many young people of the post-colonial world. She grew up in Kenya with a large and sprawling extended family, went to Europe to further her education and, as a young adult, developed a friendly but distant relationship with her younger brother, who was a son of the American Diaspora.
But then, that distant brother became the most powerful man in the world. In a new book, "And Then Life Happens," Auma Obama sheds light on her relationship with her brother, President Barack Obama and on the sometimes heartbreaking story of the Obama family in Kenya.
Auma Obama now lives in Kenya, where she has set up her own foundation called Sauti Kuu, or Powerful Voices, which seeks to help young people become more economically empowered. And she joins us now from New York.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
AUMA OBAMA: Thank you for inviting me.
MARTIN: I read a quote in an old article in the New York Times that said, quote, "piecing together Barack Obama's family is like piecing together the world. It's a rich experience, but not easy," unquote. But I think your book goes a long way toward doing that. So could you just briefly explain how you and the president are related or where you are together on the family tree? How about like that?
OBAMA: Well, it's on the level of my father because we share a father, although his mother was American and my mother was Kenyan, hence the same sir name.
MARTIN: And you are just a year apart?
OBAMA: Yes, we are.
MARTIN: Well, you know, the way you describe, I think, your father is very moving, but it also conveys, I think, very candidly, how difficult a figure he was for you at times to get your arms around. And I think the way you describe him is kind of caught between two worlds. Could you just describe that a little bit for us?
OBAMA: Yes. And, actually, that's part of the motivation around the book because, even as a child, I could see that my father was caught between two worlds and that's the African, more traditional world and the Western - in this case, more American - world that he had gotten to know when he studied.
And the thing was that, with our patriarchal family structures where the man has, you know, got to be a certain type of man. He's got to behave a certain way. And then there was the intellectual side of him that was - is influenced by the Western world where he really, you know, wanted to be in dialog with people, whether they're women or men, and not necessarily have to bring out his masculinity more than anything else. He had to struggle with being between the two worlds and he actually loved our culture in many ways because he was very - obviously, he was very comfortable in it because that's how he grew up. But, at the same time, he had adjusted and adapted to the Western culture, but maybe he wasn't necessarily that comfortable, but because that was what one did, he did it.
And I watched many occasions and many examples where he was just torn and sometimes just didn't know how to behave because he was trying to please almost like two masters and he wasn't very good at juggling, which, through the book, I try to understand him. And more the reason why I'm able to understand him is because I go through the same experience. I've kind of learned to juggle through the cultures and the different races, the different languages, and he didn't. He had that experience as an adult, so he was too much of the one and very well embedded in the other and that was quite a conflict for him, and I watched that as I was growing up.
MARTIN: I wonder if you'll talk a little bit - both about your struggle and his, if you don't mind, because his struggle caused no small amount of pain, particularly for the women in his life. You are the daughter of his first wife.
MARTIN: Yes. And then, when he went to the U.S. to study, he married President Obama's mother and he actually wrote. You later learned he actually wrote to his father...
MARTIN: ...asking permission, which was granted. But then, when he moved back to Kenya without President Obama's mother, he then married a third woman who did not - would not accept a plural marriage.
MARTIN: You never really got a chance to talk to him about it, so how did you piece together his struggle?
OBAMA: Well, it's not so much about being able to talk to him about it. It's seeing what happened. But one thing I have to correct is, very often, the impression that is given is that we were a polygamous family and that the different wives were wives that were running in parallel. Actually, I very often joke about it and say that our father was very Western because, you know, in the Western world, you have people getting married, separating, divorcing and marrying again.
You know, many people are not - they're into their second or third marriage. And he - similarly, when he and my mom separated - because the Luo tradition doesn't really have divorce, and I write about it in my book. So they separate. They were no longer together. So really, he was just a man of the times in terms of the Western world because, you know, he was in relationships that didn't work, which, for me, is not extraordinary. And that's something that I find is sometimes a challenge to relay because we are in the public eye because people expect something extraordinary of us, the relatives of my brother, who are just basically very ordinary people with very ordinary, you know, mundane situations and coping mechanisms and experiences. And my father was no exception. You know, the thing that was brilliant about him was his brain. You know, he was a brilliant scholar but in reality he was just, you know, just another guy, a regular guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Well, you know, I think that's one of the things that's kind of charming about your book is that you are very humble about all of that. You also talk about your own kind of personal struggles in figuring out where to fit in and how to fit in. But one thing that is in your book matches up with those who have read President Obama's memoir is that the two of you - even though you were not raised together - you kind of fell in love immediately, you know, as brother and sister...
MARTIN: And I'm wondering why is that? You both describe the meeting in a similar fashion, in which that you kind of met each other and it was instant sibling love.
OBAMA: Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: And I wonder what is it that binds the two of you.
OBAMA: I don't know, you know, and I'm just grateful for it. It just happened that way and maybe we are very similar in certain ways that we gravitated towards each other because, you know, we spent a lot of time talking together. You know, he listened a lot to what I had to say and it was just such a bonus to know that he's my brother and he's part of my family. And he was very familiar in many ways, partly because my father had always talked about him, he was very proud of him, but also because there were just things about him that I could relate very well to and, you know, I can't explain it beyond that. You know, I'm just lucky. I was lucky.
MARTIN: If you're joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Auma Obama. And, as you might've guessed from her name, she is the sister of President Barack Obama. We're talking about a new memoir, "And Then Life Happens."
You mentioned in the book, which I thought was also funny, is how when he first was elected to the United States Senate you really didn't understand what all the fuss was and...
OBAMA: Yeah, I didn't.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
OBAMA: Not at all.
MARTIN: When did you figure it out?
OBAMA: I think it was when I came to the inauguration because of the historic significance, you know, the fact that there were very few black man who it made it to that position, so that was very significant and I was really, really proud of him. And, you know, I left it at that. That's what he wanted to do. He'd achieved it. He was going to obviously do it well and that was it, I thought, and then life happened.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Yeah. I was going to mention that. I was going to ask about that. You wrote of that time when he was first elected to the Senate: I was astounded at the effect he had on others. Could you describe that a little bit about what you saw?
OBAMA: Yes. That was amazing because I get along with my brother, I think he's a great guy, we have a lot of fun. You know, that energy around him, I enjoy that a lot. But I enjoyed it on a personal individual level. And when he became senator he spoke at an event and the people were just, you know, they were seemed to be mesmerized by what he had to say. And that experience of somebody being able to people so powerfully and really have them believe in that person as somebody who can really make a difference in their lives, you know, I saw it at a level I've never seen before. And for me it was a little bit of a surprise because at the end of the day, he's just my brother. So it was like OK, OK. Maybe he's a bit more than just my brother, you know? You know? Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: But by the time he ran for the presidency, you were clued in by then that this was huge, this was a big deal.
OBAMA: When he ran initially?
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. For president, yeah.
OBAMA: You just realize it as it goes along and I think maybe that's a good thing. Because with no expectation, no idea of what was coming it's like a child who gets an injection for the first time, you know, you don't know it's going to hurt until you've had it and it's over, you know so...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
OBAMA: And I don't want to say that in a negative way as if it's, you know, it was a negative experience. It wasn't at all. It just, it was a very new experience with no idea. We were just participating in something that was happening and we were part of it. And it kind of caught us a lot by surprise but you just worked through it. The experience was really something very, very powerful and I write about it in the book, how powerful it was, you know.
MARTIN: You mentioned in the book how you wanted to be accessible to the American media as a way to explain a bit of your family background, and also because you didn't want them to bother your, you know, elderly relatives too. You know, and you paint, I think, a very moving but also complicated picture of the Kenyan side of the Obama family.
And I just wondered if you've been worried at all about being misinterpreted or has that happened? I mean, I'm noting, for example, that there is a conservative writer who has taken pains to say, to explain the president's political philosophy by saying that his father was an anti-colonialist, and so therefore this is kind of his worldview. Even though as you have, of course, note and as I would think most people know, they spent very little time together. Does that worry you at all?
OBAMA: You know, the book does more than talk just about my brother and my father. It really is a book about my journey. And part of my journey is the experience of diversity, different cultures, being with different types of people, just being able to accommodate and be able to adjust and integrate into situations that are very, very different. And every single family has such diversity in the family. And I think if people read my book they will recognize - because they're just human stories. And the trouble with many of the books that feels so pressed to explain the Obama family, very often the work is work that is, you know, people are quoting what - they're kind of like almost things that they've heard or they feel this necessity to present us as being something extraordinary or something that has to be different now because we have this really extraordinary person who has made it to such great heights. And what my book is really just trying to say is that no, we're really very ordinary people and that's not going to change.
MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, I do want to mention that you feel a sense of mission in part, which you talk about in the book. I wanted to ask about that. The book concludes with the lines: I am aware that as an Obama I now have a real chance to make a difference. For me, a door has opened and I too want to open doors for others. Tell us a little bit more about how you were doing this in your own work.
OBAMA: Well, what has happened is that I worked for almost five years with CARE, CARE USA. And after that time I have now actually just started to work with my own foundation, which I founded a while back but couldn't really commit that much to. And the young people we work with are underprivileged young people from the urban slums or the poor rural areas and many of these young people don't believe they exist because they live in such circumstances where they're not considered important. They don't even have an identity. They don't believe in self. And how can you achieve anything if you don't believe in yourself? And a lot of the work we do, and we didn't use a lot of sports to help young people get some self-esteem, like themselves and get confidence so that they can actually make decisions around what happens in their lives and make a difference to their lives and hence, make a difference to their communities. And that's kind of like the way I feel that I can to make opportunities available. And I'm lucky that with that name, which I really do appreciate and I know that, you know, I have to honor it in that way, it gives me the possibility to do that. I have a platform.
MARTIN: Auma Obama's memoir "And Then Life Happens" is now available in English, previously published in German. And she was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York City.
Auma Obama, thank you so much for speaking with us.
OBAMA: Thank you for inviting me.
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