DAVE DAVIES, Host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Terry Gross has the week off.
In May, Terry interviewed journalist Janny Scott about her biography of Barack Obama's mother, Ann Dunham. My guest today, Sally Jacobs, has written about the man she called the other Barack, President Obama's Kenyan father.
The first Barack Hussein Obama was born in a village in eastern Kenya and came of age as his country was emerging from colonial rule. He was, by all accounts, a brilliant and charismatic man who might have been an important leader of Kenya, but for his own self-destructive behavior.
He had four wives and countless other sexual partners, and he drank heavily, whether he was in Nairobi, Hawaii or Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he studied at Harvard. He left his son Barack when he was a baby and saw him only once more on a visit to Hawaii when the boy was 10.
Sally Jacobs is a veteran reporter at the Boston Globe and a winner of the George Polk Award. She's covered national, international and breaking news for over two decades. Her book is called "The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama's Father."
We began by talking about President Obama's grandfather, the father of Obama Sr. He was a member of the Luo tribe near Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa. It was a rural tribe whose livelihood depended on fishing and agriculture.
Well, Sally Jacobs, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk, first, about Barack Obama Sr.'s father. This would be the president's grandfather. He is himself a really interesting character. Tell us about him.
SALLY JACOBS: He was indeed a very colorful, larger-than-life character himself. He was legendary for both his strictness and his temper.
He was also a man who charted a rather unusual course for himself. He left the area where he had grown up, near Lake Victoria, when the British came in, in the late 19th century, and headed to Nairobi, where he learned many of the white man's ways. And this was quite transformative for his own life.
When he came back, he was a man with quite a bit of knowledge, and he stood out for that reason. He was somewhat educated. He had high standards for his children, certainly for his son. But his personal characteristics were certainly notable.
He was very fastidious. He had learned the white man's ways in terms of cleanliness and hygiene. He insisted that you wash your feet before you come into his home. You had to wait for him, before he had washed his hands, and then you could wash your own. You also had to wait for him to finish eating before you could sit down at the table.
He was quite a rule-monger, and to enforce those rules, he wielded a famous four-pronged hippopotamus whip, which he did not hesitate to lay upon both his children and his many wives.
DAVIES: Now, Barack Obama Sr.'s father, Onyango Obama, who later took the name Hussein as he converted to Islam. Barack Obama Sr., the subject of our book, was his oldest son, right?
DAVIES: And he had several wives and several children. Just tell us a little bit more about how he ruled his household. He could - I don't know if this is the right word, but be cruel. I mean, he used a whip. He used a cane readily on the kids and his wives, right?
JACOBS: Indeed, two of the words that are used to describe him in the Luo language of Dhuluo are quini(ph) and gur(ph). Both of them mean cruel. He was a very hard man in many respects. He was cruel to his wives. He certainly beat them, according to family members and friends, and very tough on his children.
Barack Obama Sr., for example, when he came home from school, would have to recite his math tables while standing at the table before he could have any food. Math was a relatively new concept that Onyango Hussein had learned, and he really wanted his son to have that skill.
Onyango Hussein was also very cruel to his wives. I do believe he beat them. There is a story that is told by many peopl,e of how his wife Habiba Akumu(ph), who was the mother of Obama Sr.; they had had a fight one day, Onyango and she. Onyango had had it. He goes out back behind their home, and he digs her grave behind the house.
He then takes her, drags her out to the grave, lifts his sword into the air and was about to cut her throat. Now, this story I'm told by his own daughter. He was about to cut her throat when a neighbor happens to see it and yells out to him: Onyango, you must stop that. And indeed he does. He does not kill her, but it triggers her running away later, which would have profound impact upon Obama Sr.
DAVIES: All right, so this is interesting to take in, that kind of rage and temper, as we consider what a formative influence, he was on the president's father as a young man.
Now, you write that there was a moment in the young Barack Obama Sr.'s life, when he was a little boy, that left an indelible mark on him and his sister Sarah. Tell us what happened.
JACOBS: Obama Sr.'s mother, Hawa Auma, was by many respects a very lovely and kind person. She had endured Hussein Onyango's brutality for as long as she could bear it, and after he had tried to kill her, she decided that she would have to leave, a heartbreaking decision for both her and her children.
She didn't leave right away. She waited for a few weeks, and then she told her two oldest children - she had three, now, with Onyango Hussein - and she told Sarah, the oldest child, and Obama Sr. that she was going to leave. And she told them to follow her if they could
And then she takes off. She runs away. The two children are heartbroken. They, too, wait their time until the opportunity is ripe, and then they head off into the woods - the jungle.
They're smart. They know that adults are going to be looking for them. So they travel only at night. And this is Africa - there are wild animals. They are basically risking their lives. They're walking barefoot. They walk for two weeks by themselves, until they get to the village where they thought their mother would be.
When they get there, an elder contacts Onyango Hussein and says your children are here. And he hurries there. They don't get to see their mother. He's furious at them and drags them back to Olego(ph), where they had come from, and is in a rage. And they never recover from that, as I understand it.
DAVIES: Yeah, what do you think the enduring impact was on this man?
JACOBS: well, I think for Obama Sr., this was a really crucial thing. You know, his mother has left him, his mother whom he adores. Now, he did know her later in life. But as a nine-year-old boy, this is huge.
I think that he never really felt confident in who he was, that his mother could leave him. I think he struggled all his life to feel sure of himself and to trust relationships, which of course, he had many that were disastrous. So I feel it had a really lasting and profound impact on his sense of himself.
DAVIES: Okay, so he grows up in this village, to this stern taskmaster father. Tell us what kind of young man he was, what kind of education he got.
JACOBS: Barack Obama Sr. was a bold and aggressive boy from the very start, and part of the reason for that was because he was so smart. He goes to school. His first school is under a tree outside of a church. And he starts to excel from the very beginning. He's smarter than many of the children, but he doesn't really like this first school, and the reason is because the teacher is a woman.
Now, what upstanding young man is going to be taught by a woman? This was seen as something that was not okay to him. And so he demanded that he go to another school, and indeed his father lets him do that. This was to begin a pattern with Obama Sr., which you find later on his life.
He goes to his next school, which is the Niya(ph) school some distance up the road, and there he also excels. The principal there described him to me as the smartest boy in the school. He was particularly good at math, even then. That would become his trademark. He went on to become a very talented economist; but even as a boy, 10, 11, he excelled at numbers.
So this was the beginning of a rather extraordinary academic career that marked him as someone who would go on to be very successful.
DAVIES: Now, he ended up going to a Christian school, which would have given him a real advantage in Kenyan society - didn't quite finish, right?
JACOBS: Right. Obama Sr.'s time at Maseno school was a rather colorful one, also, from the very beginning. The Maseno school was a very prominent school for Luo youths. It was first started for the sons of Luo chiefs. And it was a real victory that Obama Sr. was admitted.
But even from the beginning there, he got into trouble. Obama was an arguer. He liked to ask questions. He liked to argue with you about anything. It really didn't matter, in some cases, what the argument was about. You would say yes; he would say no. And he did the same thing at the Maseno school. He would ask questions, which was not well-received. They wanted students to listen and receive what they were told.
Obama Sr. broke many, many rules there. They were supposed to hand-dry their dishes. He refused. He wanted to lay his dishes out in the sun. You were supposed to dress in a certain way. He would not wear the socks that they asked him to.
So he was crossing people all the time. He did quite well, academically, despite that; but towards the end of his third year, a letter shows up in the principal's office. The letter is unsigned, but it's a litany of complaints about this school.
Now, no one knew for sure if Obama Sr. wrote it, but the principal seemed to think that it might have been his handiwork. One way or the other, he decided he'd had enough of Obama Sr., and he made a critical decision. He decided that he would not allow Obama Sr. to finish the Maseno school. And more damning, he wouldn't recommend him to proceed to another high school. Normally, the principal would write you a letter of recommendation, more or less, and he wouldn't do that.
This was crucial to Obama Sr. It meant that he could not go on to another school and would not be able to further his education without some serious intervention.
DAVIES: So without the high school degree that he didn't get, he makes his way to Mombasa, on the coast, right, and then eventually to Nairobi. And this was on the in the 1950s, at a time when Kenyan nationalism was emerging, and there was a lot going on in the country.
He develops relationships with people, and there was this effort to bring young Kenyans to the United States for university educations, what was called the Airlift. And it has been erroneously reported that Barack Obama, the president's father, was on the Airlift. He didn't quite make it. Now tell us about that.
JACOBS: Yes, it's often been said that he was on that first Airlift in 1959, which was sponsored largely by Tom Mboya. He was not on that flight, and the reason was it had to do with not having his degree.
I found the fellow who interviewed him for that, whose name is Bob Stevens(ph), who was with the consulate then and did many of the interviews. And he remembers Obama Sr. coming into his office, as cocky a could be, sure he's going to be on this flight because he's Tom Mboya's friend, and he knows how smart he is.
DAVIES: Tom Mboya being an emerging political figure, emerging leader in Africa. Yeah, go ahead.
JACOBS: Yeah, a very prominent Luo leader. And as Stevens is interviewing Senior, he realizes - he asks him about his degree, and Obama's avoiding this conversation a little bit, not quite telling him what happened.
You needed to take an exam to be admitted on that flight, and Obama, while he had taken the exam, had gotten a very low pass. Stevens asked him about that and found he had gotten that low grade and realized he would not be eligible for the flight and told Obama that.
Obama was shocked. He had thought surely he would be on that with all of his friends. But Stevens had to tell him he couldn't go.
DAVIES: Now, he did eventually make it to the University of Hawaii, in part with the help of this American woman who was in Kenya working on literacy and education programs, whom he befriended, and got him to seriously study for exams.
He finally makes it to the University of Hawaii. When did he go - what was that experience like? Tell us about Hawaii at that time.
JACOBS: Obama Sr. arrives in Hawaii at a crucial moment, within weeks of Hawaii becoming a state. It's a very exciting time. Hawaiians see themselves as having a whole new future in front of them, just as Obama Sr. does, who has landed there.
He stands out from the very start. Hawaii was a very relaxed culture, people who wear shorts, muumuus, flip-flops. Obama shows up. He's got on his gabardine pants, his white shirt buttoned up to his neck, a tie, and he carries, not his books in, you know, a bag or in his arms like other people do, he has a beautiful leather briefcase.
So he stood out from the very beginning. One fellow who knew him then describes him. He had never seen a black man in his life, and he remembers Obama walking into a room, and he sees this incredible outfit he has on, and then he hears the voice, which was been described as black velvet baritone.
And the fellow, his name is Pakay Zane(ph), looks up and says: Who the hell is that? And that's what a lot of students felt about him. They liked him. They were interested in him. He was a piece of exoticism that had fallen into their lap.
At the time, the story in Africa, the movement towards independence and liberation, was a popular and infectious one - more so in the early '60s - but people were fascinated by his stories, by his passion for independence.
So although he looked different, they really embraced that, very wholeheartedly.
DAVIES: So he was a charismatic figure on campus. He did public speaking and had a very active social life, as well, right?
JACOBS: Yes, he did. He and a few others traveled around engaging in debates about the various merits or weaknesses of communism. He spoke at a variety of churches and public events. He would write editorials. If someone at the local paper, the advertiser, God forbid, got something wrong about what happened in the Congo, he'd fire off a letter.
So he was very out there, very outspoken.
DAVIES: And a dancer.
JACOBS: And he was a fabulous dancer. He had - was recognized back home as being a beautiful dancer, and woman who had known him in Hawaii tells of how she, who was white, and he, who was very black-skinned, would go down to some of the famous nightclubs and start to dance.
And everybody would watch because he was so beautiful on the floor and also because he was a black man. Blacks were very few in number in Honolulu, and he was the first African student at the University of Hawaii. So he certainly cut quite a picture.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Sally Jacobs. She's a reporter for the Boston Globe who has written a new biography of Barack Obama's father called "The Other Barack." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Sally Jacobs. She's written a biography of President Obama's father called "The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama's Father."
So we're talking about when President Obama's father was a young man, studying at the University of Hawaii. And by this point, we should note is that he already has a wife and a son in Kenya, his first wife Kezia.
And there in Hawaii, he has a rather active dating life, and he meets Ann Dunham. Tell us about this relationship.
JACOBS: Ann Dunham was 17 years old, and she had enrolled in a Russian course, just as Senior had in 1960. They meet in this classroom, and both of them were quite taken with each other.
This relationship picked up speed pretty quickly. The President describes it in his own memoir, of how drawn they were to each other. Within a fairly short time, she becomes pregnant.
She's about three months pregnant, and the two of them head off to another island and get married in February of 1961. Nobody attended the wedding, as far as we know. There was very little said about it. Even Obama Sr. said nothing to his group of friends until after he had come back.
DAVIES: Now, what did he tell Ann Dunham, as far as you can tell, about his life, his wife in Africa?
JACOBS: We know that he told her he was married. He said that he had divorced his wife. He did not tell her that he had two children, which he did. One had been born after he had left. The other was, I think, two or three when he had left.
The story of Obama's many marriages is a complicated one, and the thing you need to understand about this is that it was deeply rooted in Luo culture, in which divorce was not very common.
You could get a divorce, but you had to go through a very complex process, which involved the couple sitting before a council of elders, explaining why they wanted to part, and then there had to be, if it was granted, there had to be a return of the dowry, which was usually a dozen cows or so. That process was called Waro Dok(ph).
Now, Obama told immigration officials, later, when this question about who was he married to and when and why and how many, he said: Look, in Kenya, at the time, all you have to do is say that you want a divorce from your wife, and you get one.
Now, was that true? You know, you have to - it depends on who you talk to. The truth was he had never gone through the Luo process of appearing before the council of elders, and Grace Kezia, to this day, claims that she never divorced him and is still married to him.
There are other dimensions of this and others who claim that they did subsequently get a divorce. But at the time he met Ann Dunham, I feel, quite clear, that he was still married to Grace Kezia.
DAVIES: Now, one of the fascinating things about reading the parts of your book that deal with Barack Obama Sr.'s time in America is the extent to which immigration officials took an interest in his dating life. And you, I believe, have come up with some evidence to believe that he - in immigration files that Barack Obama Sr. and Ann Dunham actually considered putting their expected child up for adoption, the one who is our president.
JACOBS: Yes, one of the documents that helped me hugely in writing this book, came from immigration. I FOIAed his immigration file really because I wanted to confirm the date he arrived in the United States. Everybody had said he had come on the flight in September of '59. I had heard from many places he hadn't, but I needed to have a document prove that he came earlier.
I FOIAed this document, and it was really a treasure for me as a biographer, in terms of details about his life, but also, just as you said, how much immigration paid attention to him.
And it wasn't extraordinary. This has happened to many foreign students, apparently. In this record, there was an extraordinary memo in which the foreign student adviser at the University of Hawaii has noted that Obama's gotten married, but she realizes that he also had recorded he'd been married in Kenya. So she realizes he may have two wives.
DAVIES: I don't know whether he's got two wives or not.
As she's talking to Obama, he says to her: Well, don't worry, my wife is pregnant. But she's making arrangements with the Salvation Army to give the baby up. Now did that really happen? It's not clear, to be honest with you. Family on - members of the family on both sides say they've never heard of it. Might Ann have taken steps to talk to Salvation Army? It's not impossible. She had many good reasons to do it.
She was 18 years old. Inter-racial marriage was outlawed in 22 states in the United States. So she might have. On the other hand, it didn't seem to be the kind of thing she would do. She was a very strong-willed, iconoclastic young woman. She was going to stand up and do what she had started. That's certainly how her family feels.
Obama Sr., on the other hand, had every reason to not want to have that baby in his life at the time. He was, at the moment, up for the renewal, essentially, of his visa, actually an extension of his stay. And he was being scrutinized by federal immigration authorities.
The last thing they were going to look kindly on, if they chose to see it this way, was a bigamist with a mixed-race baby - which, in essence, is what they might have seen him as. So Obama Sr. decided to say that the baby was going to vanish, and that baby would be the president of the United States.
DAVIES: Did he and Ann Dunham actually live together?
JACOBS: They lived together for a very short time, less than we have been led to believe. I think it's been said, generally, they lived together for the year or so before Obama Sr. left. According to the documents I found in the immigration file, they were only together for a couple of months, and then Obama Sr. moved out before the president was born.
So even at the time he was born, I don't think they were living together.
DAVIES: So Obama Sr. then goes to Harvard to pursue his studies in economics. And I think Ann Dunham hopes to follow him there. It never ends up happening. Tell us about his time in Harvard, what kind of student he was, what kind of life he led.
JACOBS: Harvard was a surprising experience for him, I think. As smart as he was, the economics that he encountered at Harvard was a different stripe altogether.
He had been trained in the old school of economics, a more linear, narrative style. This was in 1962, when everything is changing: computers, econometrics. It's all a different kind of economics. And Obama Sr. struggled with it.
Amazingly, he made it. Obama Sr. passed all of his oral exams. He had started his dissertation, and then he ran into trouble with Harvard.
DAVIES: Sally Jacobs' book is called "The Other Barack." She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Terry Gross has the week off.
We're speaking with Boston Globe reporter Sally Jacobs, who has written a new biography of Barack Obama's Kenyon father. He was born into a traditional culture in eastern Kenya but managed to get an education and make his way to the University of Hawaii. Though he already had a Kenyan wife, he married a young American, Ann Dunham, who gave birth to Barack Obama. Obama's father then went to study at Harvard, where he struggled but managed to succeed academically.
What about his social life? He wasn't somebody sitting at home writing letters to his wife in Hawaii.
JACOBS: Well, no, not exactly. He was not a part of the kind of intellectual crowd that hung out in the Littauer Center, the economics department. Obama wasn't there. Very, very few people remembered him from that time, and you would think they would because he was an African student and certainly a vivid one. He was more with the community of African students who were there of which there were some. There were many other young students who were coming to Cambridge in Massachusetts for an education. Obama had an apartment. He opened the doors to them. They revered him. He was at Harvard. He was a big man. He was someone they could learn from. So that was sort of worthless social setting. He also was as always, very active in the dating sphere.
DAVIES: And drank a lot.
JACOBS: And drank heavily. Obama was a chronic drinker from a very young age. Later he would go on to earn the nickname Double Double. And he got that nickname because when he went into a bar he would order a double round of his favorite Johnny Walker Black and the chaser would be another double round, so you have four.
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JACOBS: His friends say he could sometimes have as many as four rounds. So we have 16 shots going. But Barack Obama knew how to drink and he could always walk out of the bar.
DAVIES: And why didn't he finish his Ph.D. at Harvard?
JACOBS: He didn't finish his Ph.D. really, because of women. And it begins like this: in Hawaii as we know, immigration officials had been looking askance at his dating habits. The foreign student advisor had admonished him on his quotes "playboy ways." When it comes to Harvard, he's still pursuing his playboy ways and there's a woman he's dating from Kenya, she's also a foreign student at a high school. They're concerned about her. She's left the country, gone to London not illegally but not having filled out the proper forms. Obama's lobbying for her, making a lot of noise, as Obama often did, and they don't like that. In the immigration file they describe him as a slippery character, and they're wondering who is he married to, how many wives does he have?
He once again comes up for his renewal of his visa. Immigration goes to Harvard and says about this fellow, everything okay with him? So Harvard's international office starts to look into him and then they start getting very concerned. Part of the problem is Obama has financial problems, as he always did. He had a number of backers, Harvard being one of them, paying for his tuition. But a large concern was his dating habits. They want an upstanding proper African student. They don't want someone who drinks too much, runs around too much and doesn't have enough money.
And so, according to the immigration record, the head of the international student office, in conjunction with a few others, decide they are going to quote, "cook something up to ease him out." And that's what they do. They never tell him why. They just say that they don't have enough money and he's got to go back to Nairobi.
Obama Sr.'s beside himself. It's crucial to him. Harvard isn't just a degree. Harvard is the greatest university in the world. Nobody in Kenya - well, not many - have degrees from there. A degree from Harvard would be a cornerstone of his life. And that's what happens. He goes back to Nairobi. He does get a Masters in economics, not the Ph.D. He goes on to claim the title, nonetheless. He's Dr. Obama. The older he gets, the more he claims it. But he did never get it and I feel this was also a crucial moment in his life. It broke him in many respects to be booted out of Harvard like that.
DAVIES: So Barack Obama Sr., the president's father, returns to Kenya in 1964 having failed to get his Ph.D. at Harvard. And give us a bit of the context. What was happening in Kenya at the time and how his skills might have fit in and let him advance his career?
JACOBS: Sure. This was an extraordinary moment in Kenyan history. If you can imagine after nearly 60 years of being told no you can't. There used to be signs hanging at prominent restaurants and hotels saying, no Africans or dogs can come in, those are gone. You can go into the restaurants. You can drink whiskey. Not only that, you can get jobs that you couldn't have dreamed of applying for before.
This was a process called Africanization and it meant that Africans now could get higher-ranking jobs at the corporations. Never mind that many of them were not quite ready for some of those jobs. Very few had an education. At the time independence was achieved in 1963, it's estimated that there were only 500 individuals with college degrees. Now those 500 were going to be the ones that would assume all of these jobs and Barack Obama should have been, would have been at the head of the pack with a Harvard degree. He comes back to this sort of celebratory mood and a man with a nickname of Double Double does not hesitate to jump in.
DAVIES: And why didn't he initially get a really terrific job in this emerging Kenyan independent state?
JACOBS: Well, he did. Obama did get a terrific job. The first job he got was at Shell. He was a management trainee, which may sound like a low-level situation, but for someone just coming back off from the United States this was quite a good job. He could have gone to have a wonderful career at Shell. This is a corporation, a prominent one. Obama makes it less than a year. He wasn't fired exactly but he was not asked back. So he left Shell and he goes on and gets another potentially terrific job. This one was at the Central Bank of Kenya, the new bank in Kenya that was created in the mid-60s. Obama gets a job there and again, he runs into trouble within months. He shows up late. He drinks on the job. He doesn't have money, he has to borrow money. And he does, he is asked to leave it there. So now he has two jobs, potentially great ones, behind him.
DAVIES: And eventually works with a government job. But another American wife enters the picture and complicates his life. This is Ruth Baker. Tell us about that relationship.
JACOBS: Ruth Baker was a young woman from Newton, Massachusetts, who met Obama Sr. at a party and once again, was smitten by him. They spent about two to three weeks together, walking the Charles, getting to know each other and having fun. When Obama leaves when he realizes Harvard is not going to keep him, he says to her come with me, follow me. And she does. She's never been out of the country, she's never even been on an airplane. And Ruth gets on that plane and she flies to follow her lover in Kenya and she gets off the flight at the Nairobi airport and looks around, waiting for her lover to come and grab her and he's not there. Doesn't show up at all.
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JACOBS: So this has got to be the beginning of a troubled relationship. But Ruth is very practical. She finds somebody who knows Obama Sr. He's there in a few hours and off they go. The honeymoon does not last very long. They live a pleasant life together, going out, staying up late, having fun. But as the months go on, and Obama begins to have trouble with his jobs, he drinks more heavily and pretty soon into it he starts to go out with other women.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Sally Jacobs. Her new book about President Obama's father is called "The Other Barack."
We'll talk more after a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with journalist Sally Jacobs. She has a new book, a biography of President Obama's father. It's called "The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama's Father."
So he is married to Ruth. Ruth gives birth to a son, Mark and he eventually decides that - she eventually decides this is intolerable and makes her way back to the states. How does Obama react?
JACOBS: She does leave. She's had it. She's heard the stories from her friends about him womanizing. She's crestfallen that this man she really loves, and I do feel that this was the passion of her life. She leaves. She goes home. Somewhat shockingly, when she goes to her parents who adore her, they ask her not to stay in the house. As she describes it, she has a dark-skinned baby so they find another place for her to live. Ruth, as I said, is a very practical woman and she does what they say. And who shows up on her doorstep, Barack Obama Sr. He loves her. He can't live without her. She must come back. And she does. She goes back, but the honeymoon again does not last long. In fact, things are getting worse. Obama is going out with other women, drinking. He even starts to bring other women home to their house.
Finally, one night when he brings the woman home to the house the commotion is so huge several other neighbors, prominent gentlemen with government jobs, come around and try to get Obama to calm down and stop what he's doing but he yells at them and tells them to go away. So once again it's become intolerable to Ruth. When, according to her and his son, he raises his hand and hits one of his children, she decides she's out too.
DAVIES: It's interesting that his father, Barack Obama Sr.'s father, this traditional man, physically abused his wife and children regularly with cane and a whip. Did Barack Obama Sr. also hit his wives?
JACOBS: As Ruth describes it and some of the neighbors, yes, he did hit her. I never had anybody tell me he had hit either of his previous two wives. He did I believe abuse Ruth.
You know, there are people who dismiss Obama Sr. as a drunk and a wife beater. That's just not fair to him. He's a very complicated person, a very talented person who was caught in the midst of two different cultures. In one was the Luo culture in which he was raised, and the other was the cosmopolitan life of newly independent Nairobi. It wasn't entirely clear what a man's role was. You would live in Nairobi in the city life, you go back to the village where the old traditions prevailed. I'm not trying to excuse anything that he did. But I think it's important that to understand him you understand where he came from, what his childhood was like, what polygamous culture was if he was raised in. You have to understand that to understand what his life was.
DAVIES: Now in 1971 he returns to Hawaii to see Ann Dunham, who he had not seen in all these years. And his son Barry, Barack Obama, now our president, who he would tell some people tell us, that he was very proud of. Why did he go to Hawaii?
JACOBS: He went to Hawaii because his life was falling apart. Ruth was getting ready to leave him. She hadn't quite left. He certainly was aware that that was probably coming. He now has no job at all. He went on after Central Bank, had a job at the Kenyan Tourist Development Corporation, he leaves that, he goes down in flames. He's lied there. He gets in a lot of trouble and is fired. So he has no wife. He has no job. He's running out of money. What's he going to do? He comes back apparently with the notion of seeing if Ann and little Barry will go back with him, according to a couple of his friends. He's officially sort of looking to drum up business to be a consultant. But I think he was really looking to attach in some way.
DAVIES: And how did it go? I mean what, you know, we have an account of that visit in Barack Obama's memoir "Dreams for My Father," and then you talked to folks who were there. What was that encounter like?
JACOBS: I think most of what we know about that encounter comes from the president's book. He, the president, is eager to see his father. Nervous. He watches them closely. Obama Jr. writes beautifully about watching his father, looking at his father's clothing. How thin he was. How jaundice was his skin, but how commanding his voice was. Even Barry Jr.'s grandparents are listening to him, taken with him, so it's sort of a mixed experience. They sightsee. They drive by places that the couple had frequented before they were married, after they were married. But it doesn't last very long. Obama Sr. is still himself. He's arrogant. He's bossy. He tells people what to do and by the month's end everyone's getting a little tired of it. It culminates in the president's memoir one night, when he wants to watch a favorite television program and he's all excited and ready to do that. And Obama Sr. looks at him and says don't you think you better go do your homework? Well, everybody starts to argue, Obama Jr. is sent off, and that's pretty much the end of it. By the time Sr. leaves Obama Jr.'s glad to see him go and never sees him again.
DAVIES: Right. They never saw each other again. So Barack Obama Sr. returns to Kenya and these are hard years. I mean he's broke, at times a dissolute. Sleeping on couches at times, drinking heavily all of the time. And then you write that in his, the last few years before his death in 1982, he rebounded a bit, both personally and professionally.
JACOBS: Yes, he does. Obama did endure a rather is what I think of as his lost period. As you say, he's drinking heavily, sleeping in people's floors, one room hotels, he's drifting. But he still has a community of people there, economists who admire him. This was a small community of economists. They knew he'd had a hard time, they were rather sympathetic to him. And there's a story about him that is told by many, many people and it goes like this: Obama is out at the Intercontinental Hotel drinking with a friend, Peter Aringo, a legislator, and they happened to see Mwai Kibaki, the current president of Kenya, then a prominent economist, go up to the bar.
Obama heads up to the bar and goes up to him and he says man, why are you up here buying drinks when I'm twice the economist as you and I can't afford a drink? Kibaki knew Obama Sr., rather liked him, and he also knew that he was a very talented economist. So he says to Obama I'm not going to buy you the drink but I'm going to give you a job. Show up at my office tomorrow. Obama does and he does get a job at the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development. Not a great job. He was a lower-level planner but it was a job and it kept him going for the rest of his life.
DAVIES: He was a prodigious drinker all his adult life and had many traffic accidents, some of which he suffered serious injuries in. And he died in 1982 in an accident in which he drove a car into a tree stump and apparently was killed instantly. And some relatives think it might not have been an accident. What do they suspect?
JACOBS: Absolutely. There are many of Obama family members who think that he was killed, that someone pushed them off the road. That someone got in the car, drove, killed him and then drove the car into the tree. They describe how the windshield wasn't broken. They can tell you in detail how Obama Sr.'s glasses themselves were not shattered. I don't have the mortuary's report. I do have the newspaper report. Clearly the police describe it as an accident, believed he drove himself into the tree, and I, myself, feel that that probably is most likely what happened.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Sally Jacobs. Her new biography of President Obama's father is called "The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama's Father."
You know, this is a fascinating story, I have to say. And as I read it, it is hard to like this guy and I admit that there may be some cultural chauvinism here. He came from a traditional culture that tolerated polygamy. But I can't help but feel, as I read this, that President Obama was lucky that this man was not more of an influence on him. You spoke to a number of the children of Obama Sr. can you generalize about the impact that he had on his many children?
JACOBS: Well, is it better to have a bad father than no father at all? I think that's probably one for the psychiatrist's couch. Certainly, Obama Sr., was not a very nurturing father. It was interesting to me that after Obama became president, five of his children wrote books about. He had a total of eight children. One died in a motorcycle crash, two are probably not his. That leaves five. All of that five, all but one have written a book, a memoir of sorts, really trying to understand their father and themselves. Part of it was the Obama name was now a global one, but part of it really was a soul-searching by these children.
Obama wrote his memoir, which, of course was "Dreams from My Father," in which he tries to understand himself and this mysterious figure. Mark Ndesandjo, a child by Ruth, he writes a heartbreaking fictional memoir, of sorts, in which he describes, in painstaking detail, what it was like in their house before the father would come home. The tension, as he describes it, would mount through the afternoon. You wouldn't know, he said, would he be coming home drunk, would he come home and hit somebody, you wouldn't know what to expect. And so they all would cower, waiting for him to return.
If Obama the president had had him as a father, I think it's fair to say, that he wouldn't be the president.
DAVIES: And why do you say that?
JACOBS: Because I think he would have had to wrestle with a neglectful father, an insecure person, and someone who probably would have prevented him from following the path that he chose. You know, in "Dreams" You feel Obama Jr. struggling with who am I? What kind of a man am I? What will I be? The person he comes out as is clearly a very determined and rooted and responsible person - everything that Obama Sr. was not. So I think that if his father was present, it would have been very difficult for him to define himself as he has. In a way, he defines himself in the absence of his father. He creates himself as a new man.
DAVIES: Well, Sally Jacobs, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much for talking about him with us.
JACOBS: Thank you.
DAVIES: Sally Jacobs' book is called "The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama's Father."
You can read an excerpt on our Website, freshair.npr.org.
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