Then- Sen. Barack Obama greets his step-grandmother, Sarah Obama, in Kenya on Aug. 26, 2006. The presidents African heritage is explored in a new book.
In March 2008, Barack Obama made headlines.
Not for his town hall speeches or his Super Tuesday performance. Instead, they focused on a photo of the then-Senator in Kenyan dress.
An Internet-fueled controversy was born. Some people called it a smear campaign. Others claimed it proved Obama wasn’t a U.S. citizen, making him ineligible for the presidential race.
The truth came out eventually: The snapshot was taken two years earlier, when Obama was on an official visit to Kenya. He visited the place where his father, Barack Obama Sr., was born.
Even after the Kenyan-dress kerfuffle died down, this side of the president’s heritage has remained mysterious. His father was a member of the Luo tribe in Kenya, and Barack Obama Sr.’s ancestry — a tribal tradition that goes back centuries — has been relatively little explored.
In “The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family,” author Peter Firstbrook attempts to piece together oral history, fables and traditions to explain the deepest roots in the Obama family tree, a lineage that even the president knows little about.
It’s a huge undertaking, but Firstbrook manages to do it with ease. Despite some stilted writing, he uses skills honed as a documentary filmmaker to unravel a compelling story about the Obama family in Kenya that much of the media has glossed over.
On Inauguration Day in 2008, while journalists staked out the compound of Sarah Obama, step-grandmother to the soon-to-be 44th president, Firstbrook sat with more than 500 people, all members and friends of Obama’s extended family, at the compound in K’obama. No other “mzungu,” which means white man in Swahili, was there.
The book gets off to a slow start. Firstbrook delves into details about how the Luo, the third biggest tribe in Kenya, arrived in the region. While the tales of who begot whom may seem dull after a while, his descriptions of tribal traditions are captivating.