From an unlikely background rose the leader of world’s most powerful nation

Chinua Achebe writes in Things Fall Apart that a chick that will grow into a cock can be spotted the very day it hatches.

Yet Barack Hussein Obama’s chequered heritage and mundane early life could not have been less likely to lead him to his remarkable ascent to the presidency of the United States, the first African American in history to achieve the feat.

From his maternal great grandmother committing suicide, to his father’s brilliance destroyed by drinking and disillusion, and a host of other challenges in between, the odds could not have been greater.

So great were these odds that President Obama would tell an interviewer in 2011 that “the only way my life makes sense is if, regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality, these essential human truths and passions and hopes and moral precepts that are universal.”

The offspring of an atheist mother and a free-wheeling father who was only Muslim in name, Obama spent his formative years in Indonesia, home to Muslims and Catholics of all shades of skin, and a mosaic of the different islands and ethnicities of the vast nation.

And herein lies the answer to his detractors’ charges that he was “too Muslim” to be the President of the United States.

For while Indonesia had, and still has, the largest Muslim population in the world, it is also home to the Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, located in Central Java.


But his diversity goes further into his bloodline. In his absorbing biography Barack Obama: The Story, David Maraniss writes that Hussein Onyango, the US President’s grandfather, straddled different worlds, black and white.

He was eastern in religion, western in dress and demeanour and African in political sensibility, a trait the professional cook seems to have passed on to generations. It is this ambivalence — never immersing himself in any group — that would come to the aid of his grandson as he ran for a senate seat and later presidency.

“There are different ways to make an impression in college. Clinton was an exaggeration of the typical student politician, larger than life … But Obama grew up as an outsider who looked at politics from an international perspective,” writes Maraniss, a Washington Post veteran who is also the author of First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton.

While his move to Chicago, the beating heart of black America, in 1985 was the launching pad of his politics, the beginning of a journey to the upper reaches of world power, Obama was not the dyed-in-the-wool black American in the mould of Malcolm X or even the more moderate Martin Luther King Jnr.

Yet these two and others like Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and Harold Washington — who all realised their dreams in Chicago — were the inspiration, the trailblazers.

Michael Jordan, the basketball legend, who descended on Chicago from North Carolina, would become one of the most recognisable and famous men on the planet; TV personality Oprah, one of the richest and most famous people in the world; while Harold Washington had, in 1984, broken the race barrier to become Chicago’s first black mayor.

Thus Chicago was the Eldorado, the place to be in the mid-1980s for a young Black American out to tempt fate and make it in a world he had previously not had respite in.


In developing his mobilisation skills, Obama relied on pastors whom he watched to hone his public speaking skills.

He appeared to have been influenced by the French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, whom he studied at Occidental College, on his emphasis that America would even be greater if it grew community organisation that would perpetuate local democracy.

But much as he devoured books on Black history, “he was acutely aware that his history, circumstance was different… that he was only a product of an interracial romance.”

And yet, had Barack Hussein Obama and Stanley Ann Dunham not elected to take a course in Russian language at the University of Hawaii and attend class that morning of September 26, 1960, the history of the world would have been different.

Why Obama Snr chose to study Russian, rather than any other foreign language, will remain a subject of speculation — and Maraniss hazards a guess: “Obama could have chosen to study Russian because much as he was a Mboya man, his personal politics was closer to that of Jaramogi (Oginga Odinga), another chief Luo leader.”

The star-crossed marriage, however would not last, since Obama was already married in Kenya and also because Stanley Ann Dunham realised that he was not a committed family man. They would divorce in March 1964 after a troubled union of which he was really only part in name.

Maraniss paints the picture of Obama Snr as a stubborn, mean-spirited man who never put others into consideration in his choices. So, despite his generous scholarship to Harvard, he did not take Ann and the young Obama with him.

He would be kicked out on the verge of completing his doctoral thesis on the economics of a developing country because of drunkenness and “moving around with too many women”.


Over the years, however, Obama Snr, then having difficulty keeping jobs and wreaking havoc on his body with alcohol, sought to be closer to his son.

In December 1970, he visited him and his mother in Honolulu and a teacher who had been to Kenya, invited him to give a talk to the young Obama’s class.

And in a scene not unlike that of the ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Obama would later tell of a dream in which his father appeared to him and said: “Look at you, so tall and so thin, grey hairs even. Barack, I always wanted to tell you how much I loved you.”

In one letter he apologised for not writing often, saying he was busy with government work, and promised to do better. “He said that he and all of Barry’s brothers and sisters in Kenya were looking forward to seeing him.”

“When you come we shall together decide on how long you may wish to stay. Barry, even if it is only for a few days, the important thing is that you know your people and also you know where you belong,” he pleaded.

While Barack Obama would later visit his motherland a couple of times, the reunion was not to be. Obama Snr had died on November 24, 1982 in a car crash.

Maraniss’ epic roots story enlarges, and sometimes changes, the narrative that we already know from Obama’s books Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope.

He is particularly critical of the tendency to embellish Obama’s Kenyan grandfather.

He shows that Hussein Onyango, who had five wives, was not involved in Kenyan insurgencies or was ever tortured by British colonialists during the Mau Mau era, insisting he remained a trusted figure among white Kenyans to the end.

Maraniss is also keen to show President Obama’s human side, complete with details of his past multiple relationships and the fact that as a teenager, he was an enthusiastic marijuana smoker.

“While Bill Clinton claimed that as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he smoked dope but never inhaled, when you were with Barry and his pals, if you exhaled precious pakalolo (Hawaiian slang for marijuana), instead of absorbing it fully into your lungs, you were assessed a penalty. Wasting good bud smoke was not tolerated.”