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Book Delves Into the Obama Family’s Kenyan Roots

Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images
Then- Sen. Barack Obama greets his step-grandmother, Sarah Obama, in Kenya on Aug. 26, 2006. The president’s African heritage is explored in a new book.

For instance, unlike in other African cultures where circumcision is a right-of-passage ritual, the Luo pull six teeth from the bottom of the mouths of both girls and boys. And according to Luo beliefs, a person cannot visit their in-laws’ home if they die until after the burial because seeing the corpse would be “to see them naked.” A man cannot look at the ceiling if he goes to the house of his wife’s parents. In-laws can’t accept food or stay the night when they visit. So when Obama invited his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, to live in Washington, D.C., with his family, it broke the tribe’s taboo. According to the tribe’s tradition, the only way to fix the trespass would be to knock down the family’s home — in this case, the White House.

In describing the Luo personalities, Firstbrook seems to draw comparisons to Obama. Although he doesn’t make the explicit connection, he might be describing the president in this passage: “The Luo, Obama’s African tribe, are known for being easygoing and generous, and I had received nothing but help and support from them. But they also had a reputation for, among other things, talking big and doing very little.”

And later the description seems to echo Obama’s call for transparency in government: “The Luo are fair and they are democratic people. They want to discuss issues. They don’t want secrecy. They don’t have ‘night meetings.’ If they call a meeting, they will reveal it outside when they’ve done.”

The narrative gets more fascinating when Firstbrook describes Obama’s grandfather and father. Hussein Onyango Obama, father to Barack Obama Sr., was a forceful man who fought in both world wars.

The president’s father also showed willfulness. At age 9, he ran away from home only to be returned several days later. He found school easy, according to Sarah Obama: “He came back after the first day and told his father that he could not study there because his class was taught by a woman and he knew everything she had to teach him.”

The book also describes the reverence that those in the Luo tribe have for the president. From schools named after him to a note on his great-grandfather’s grave (“Dedicated by the Barack H. Obama Foundation”), the president’s influence is strong in the region.

Firstbrook best shows this when he describes visiting the place where Obama stayed when he came to for Kenya for the first time. The hut was small with wooden shutters.

“I want to show you something special,” Firstbrook’s guide said to him. “This house is where the president slept. ... He came visiting — he wanted to know his roots. So he came up to Kendu Bay, and this is where he slept.”

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