When Barack Hussein Obama, a lanky young American, came to Kenya in search of his roots in 1988, he was picked up from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport by his half-sister, Dr Auma Obama, in a battered Volkswagen Beetle — a brand locally nicknamed “The Tortoise” at the time.In a scene Mr Obama describes in his book Dreams from my Father, it is clear the car was worse for wear.
“Unfortunately, the engine had come down with a tubercular knock, and the muffler had fallen off on the way to the airport. As we sputtered out onto the four-lane highway, Auma clutching the steering wheel with both hands, I couldn’t keep from laughing,” Obama writes.
On Friday night, the lanky man from 27 years ago landed at JKIA as President of the US aboard Air Force One. And, at the tail-end of the line of officials introduced by his host President Uhuru Kenyatta, was Dr Obama.
What followed was a scene that has made her one of the most talked about people.
The US President hugged her, took time to exchange pleasantries, then she was led to “The Beast”, the president’s official limousine, said to be the safest vehicle in the world, and the two rode together from the airport. The difference between “The Tortoise” and “The Beast” could not be starker.
They would later be pictured at Villa Rosa Kempinski Hotel when President Obama met his relatives, including grandmother Sarah Obama, over dinner.
That Dr Obama — the daughter of Obama Snr’s second wife Kezia — and his brother have always been close is recorded in their writings and media interviews. Indeed, she can be said to be protective of him.
In her memoir, And Then Life Happens, she describes him as her “best friend”. And she recently told US broadcaster CNN: “I love my brother. What can I say? I mean it’s interesting that we met quite late in life. We hit it off — and yeah — he’s my brother — that’s why we don’t do the half thing,” she said.
Dr Obama studied sociology and German in Heidelberg before attending the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin and finally graduating in Bayreuth. She has also lived in Germany and the UK.
She runs an NGO called Sauti Kuu Foundation, which helps young people struggling with poverty, giving them hope for the future. The organisation also supports orphans.
Although Mr Obama also returned to Kenya as a Senator in 2006, the foundation for his current “homecoming” as president was laid by Auma 27 years ago. In Dreams From My Father, he writes that he realised, for the first time in his life, that his name meant something.
“I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people’s memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, ‘Oh, you are so and so’s son’. No one here in Kenya would ask me how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue. My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances, and grudges that I did not understand yet,” he writes.
While studying in America, Obama Snr married and later divorced a white woman Anne Dunham, the President’s mother who died in 1995.
It seems that the one relationship that defines Obama’s Kenyanness is that with his sister. For it is Dr Obama who “introduced” him, so to speak, to and in Kenya. That ride from the airport in the battered Volkwagen symbolised the elder sister’s role in Luo culture as a “mother figure” to younger siblings.
This is probably why during that first visit she took up the role to take him to visit their grandmother Mama Sarah in Alego, K’Ogelo. Dr Obama acted as a translator to bridge the language barrier.
She watched and listened as her brother uttered his first Dholuo words to his grandmother, Nadi– how is it? She chaperoned him to meet his relatives in Karachuonyo – where some of their people lived.
And, on Friday, that close relationship was evident.