And Then Life Happens: A Memoir

And Then Life Happens: A Memoir

by Auma Obama, Ross Benjamin

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250010599
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/24/2012
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 930,660
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

AUMA OBAMA was born in Kenya right after the country gained its independence. She grew up first with her mother and paternal grandparents, and later with her (and President Obama's) father and American step-mother. She now works in Nairobi for CARE International, an organization specializing in educational projects worldwide.

Read an Excerpt

And Then Life Happens

A Memoir

By Auma Obama, Ross Benjamin

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Auma Obama
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-01059-9


"Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I can't believe it!"

For the second time, Lucy, my assistant, read the letter she was holding in her hand. Flustered by its unexpected arrival, I had desperately needed to show it to someone.

I stood next to Lucy's desk and could tell clearly by the look on her face that she was itching to read the letter once again — this time aloud. Immediately, I emphatically gestured to her not to do so. The last thing I wanted was for the whole office to find out what was in the letter — or even worse, who had sent it. For some time now, I had been getting an enormous amount of attention — because my brother Barack had, against all odds, become the first African-American president of the United States. Almost overnight, I — as a member of his family in Africa — found myself in the spotlight. And now it seemed that even levelheaded Lucy was getting caught up in all the excitement.

"You absolutely have to frame the letter! Absolutely!" she cried. Laughing, I took the letter from her. "Really, Auma!" she added in earnest. "Imagine how much it will be worth in a few years." Now I really had to laugh.

"You Kikuyu," I teased, feigning reproach.

The Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, have a reputation for good business sense. Lucy grinned. She is actually Kamba, a different ethnic group, but is married to a Kikuyu man.

"Must have rubbed off on me," she replied with a shrug and a mischievous smile.

I noticed our coworkers looking at us with growing curiosity.

"Don't you think it would make more sense to answer the letter instead of keeping it as a museum piece?" I went on, lowering my voice and trying to bring not only Lucy but also myself back down to earth. All the while, another question was whirling around in my mind: How on earth was I to go about answering a letter from Hillary Rodham Clinton?

* * *

Only a few minutes earlier, the letter had been brought to me personally by a U.S. embassy staff member. It was preceded by a call to my office at the international humanitarian organization CARE to confirm that I would be available to take delivery of the letter. Before I knew what this was all about, my immediate reaction was to go on the defensive. I thought it was just another of the numerous interview requests I had been receiving. Overwhelmed by the volume of calls, I had started to feel like a cornered animal trying to take cover from the journalists. The fact that those inquiries always reached me exclusively on my cell phone and that only a few people knew my office number had at that moment completely slipped my mind.

At the height of the election in 2008, I had intentionally given out my cell number, so that anyone with questions about the Obama family could contact me. I had believed that I could easily deal with the media. After all, I thought, I had worked as a journalist myself when I lived in Germany. By providing my number, I had mainly wished to protect my grandmother, whom everyone called Mama Sarah, from all the media fuss. But I had not been prepared for such a flood of calls.

Because Mama Sarah was also Barack's grandmother, everyone wanted to speak to her. They wanted her to tell them about his family, to bring to light the missing pieces of the puzzle that Barack Obama was for them. Who exactly was this black man and son of an African who had dared to aspire to the office of president of the most powerful nation in the world? Where were his roots? Who was his family?

In search of answers to these questions, scores of reporters from across the globe boarded planes and traveled to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. From there they continued on to rural western Kenya, to Alego Nyangoma Kogelo, an unassuming little village not far from the shores of Lake Victoria that was our ancestral home. There, on the Obama family homestead, lie the mortal remains of Barack Hussein Obama Sr. (1936–1982) and Onyango Hussein Obama (1879–1975), the father and grandfather, respectively, of the forty-fourth American president. And to this day, it is the home of our grandmother, Mama Sarah.

On many occasions I was at my grandmother's side when she was interviewed, and I never ceased to be amazed and delighted at how well she, eighty-seven years old at the time, was able to grasp the intricacies and dynamics of the American electoral process. She answered all the questions with intelligence and humor, sticking to the point and not digressing. That being said, I was also always conscious of not wanting to overtax her at her age and tried to keep the media interest from getting out of hand.

* * *

I carried Hillary Clinton's letter around with me for days. I felt that any response had to be well thought through. Not only was I in a state of mixed emotions — overjoyed at my brother's success, while at the same time not fully prepared for the unrelenting attention I now received as a member of the Obama family — but the letter from the U.S. Secretary of State also brought back some painful memories. During the primaries, she had run against my brother for their party's nomination. Both were Democrats, but they had also been the fiercest opponents. Recollections of negative attacks on my brother from the Hillary camp were still fresh in my mind. And because I was not accustomed to the rules of political campaigning, at the time everything had seemed to me to be playing out on a very personal level. I had feared that his rival's team wanted not only to win the election, but also to ruin my brother's political career. And now here was a letter from Hillary Clinton thanking me for the wonderful moments we shared in Washington and wishing me all the best. I could hardly believe it.

On the occasion of the inaugural luncheon, I had been seated with Hillary and Bill Clinton and other dignitaries of American politics. As we ate, the conversation revolved around Barack's swearing-in, global politics, development aid, Kenya, and my work with CARE. I even received a number of tips to pass on to my brother and his wife, Michelle, wise advice on how to lead a somewhat "normal" life in the White House.

Even though I was not sitting next to Hillary, the opportunity arose for a brief one-on-one chat. To my pleasant surprise, the former senator from New York was a charming, amusing, and engaged conversation partner. I really enjoyed talking to her and would have gladly spoken longer with this energetic, intelligent woman. I could see why so many people had so passionately supported her during the campaign. From up close, I also realized why female voters in particular had wanted to help Hillary become the first female president of the United States. She simply exuded enormous "woman power."

The dialogue with Hillary — during which I crouched down next to her — was interrupted when it was time for dessert. Feeling the strain in my thigh muscles, I returned to my seat next to her husband, the forty-second president of the United States.

* * *

Almost a month went by before I finally found the right words to reply to Hillary. It was not an easy task. On the one hand, I wanted to keep open the possibility of getting to know her better — a response along the lines of "Thank you for your letter" seemed insufficient. On the other hand, I was aware that this letter was most likely just a polite gesture, a matter of political etiquette without further implications. I was not sure how to take it. This was all very new to me. With my brother taking center stage in global politics, I could not help questioning all the interest in me as "Barack Obama's sister."


Growing up, I never understood why there were so many things I was not allowed to do merely because I was a girl, while my brother Abongo — who was just two years older than I was — not only had more freedom than I did but also felt entitled to boss me around.

I fiercely resisted this situation. Being the only, somewhat headstrong girl in a patriarchal African family — my siblings were all boys — I had no choice but to fight to hold my own. On many occasions, I sought refuge in books, where I could lose myself in the lives of others.

Stories about compassion, suffering overcome, and powerful emotions were my favorites. Not only did they suit my temperament, but their gripping content also enabled me to block out my own reality. In high school in Nairobi, I discovered German postwar literature and immediately took to it. I was sixteen at the time, and like most teenagers, I was intense and soul-searching, struggling to establish an identity.

First I read the books in English, and later on in German. I devoured Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, and Wolfgang Borchert, and I admired Christa Wolf. These authors' protagonists felt things deeply, and I felt with them. For hours, I buried myself in their books. Sometimes I even read two books at a time, one before falling asleep at night and the other during the day.

It was only by chance that I came into contact with German literature and the German language. Kenya was once a British colony, and not until 1963 did it gain its independence. As a result, the official European language of the country is English, next to Kiswahili, a regional East African language. In those days, German was an unlikely language for a Kenyan to encounter, but in 1976, German classes were offered at my high school. The subject was new, and none of us students really knew what you could do with it. Up to that point, the only foreign language offering had been French. And since most of us were busy enough with that, only a few students registered for the German class. I was one of them. That was my first step toward my later decision to go to Germany and study in the land of my literary heroes.

But long before my escape into German literature, I questioned many things and searched for a way to free myself from the constraints of our traditions. My family belongs to the Luo people, in which the man occupies the undisputed role of patriarch.

* * *

The Luo are one of more than forty ethnic groups living in Kenya. They are among the Western Nilotic peoples, who migrated centuries ago from Sudan, from the banks of the White Nile, to Uganda and onward to Kenya, settling on Lake Victoria. Today the region of the Luo-speaking peoples extends across southern Sudan, Ethiopia (Anuak), northern Uganda, and eastern Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC), as well as across western Kenya into northern Tanzania. In Kenya, the Luo are the third largest ethnic group after the Kikuyu and the Luhya; in total, over four million people are said to speak their language.

I was the only girl in our nuclear family. While our city life had modern features, in the countryside with my grandparents, where things were particularly traditional, I experienced how the boys were always treated differently than the girls. Women and girls were constantly occupied with various activities in house and home — at least that was how it seemed to me — while the male family members did next to nothing in the household and only rarely made themselves useful on the homestead.

I remember that my grandfather Onyango, in accordance with Luo custom, always ate with the boys and men of the house, never with the girls and women, who dined separately in the kitchen. We women — among us were also cousins and aunts — cooked, served the meals, cleaned up, and did the dishes, while the men and boys had everything brought to them. It especially rankled me that my older brother visibly enjoyed this allocation of duties. But it bothered me even more that most of the women and girls seemed not to mind waiting hand and foot on the male family members. I resisted fiercely what I experienced as gender inequality and tried not to subordinate myself — though without great success. I had to fall into line.

* * *

Years later, when I delved deeper into Luo traditions, I learned that the gender roles in our ethnic group had originally been distinct but rather balanced. The main tasks of the male family members were raising livestock (usually they herded cattle), hard physical farming work, fishing, building huts, and producing a variety of objects. For example, they made musical instruments, did metalwork and carpentry, wove baskets, and tied fishing nets. Their jobs also included herbalism and the protection of the community in times of war. Girls and women were responsible for the household. They fetched water in gourds, plastered the house walls, made pottery, and, like the men, wove baskets. It was their duty to sow the fields, to bring in the harvest, and to store the grain. Among the animals, they were responsible for the goats, sheep, and calves; in case the men went to war, they learned how to herd the cattle as well. And, of course, they took care of the children and their upbringing.

By learning these tasks, girls and boys prepared for their future lives as husbands and wives. Taught obedience, a sense of responsibility, and deference from an early age, they largely accepted these traditions. Only by passing them on could the Luo ensure the economic and social survival of their people.

But then the time-honored structures, as they had existed for centuries, fell victim to the colonization of Kenya. The colonial rulers introduced the so-called hut tax: Overnight the native Africans had to pay taxes on their huts in the form of money. As a result, they were forced to work on the farms of the white people, because not paying the taxes was a punishable offense — at the worst, with imprisonment. Because the men could only earn money from white people, they had to leave their own land and seek wage work in the areas of Kenya settled by white people.

While the men now worked for the colonists, the women and girls who had stayed behind had to take over their duties. When the men returned home, it was usually only for a few vacation days. During those stays, they did not have the necessary time to participate in a meaningful way in the farming activities. As a result, they did not take on larger tasks; most of the time, they just let their wives and daughters serve them, until it was once again time to return to the cities or to the white peoples' farms.

In this way, all the farming work became the women's responsibility. In marriage, great value was attached to the bride's ability to work in the fields and perform all the necessary tasks on the homestead. This did not, however, alter her position in the hierarchy of the family.

* * *

As an eight-year-old girl, I did not grasp this development. Though the traditional societies had changed under external pressure, which also affected how boys and girls were brought up for adult life and the customary division of their roles, the Luo families preserved their child-rearing principles. They did not question all too much how and whether these were compatible with the altered circumstances. And I, too, was expected to submit unquestioningly to the old values.

Unfortunately, no one took the time to explain contexts and backgrounds to me, the inquisitive girl. My grandmother Sarah was only amused by my constant questions, or shook her head when I was too persistent. Occasionally, she jokingly threatened to marry me off to an old neighbor, who was already over fifty, if I would not stop questioning everything. She would certainly get a few fine cows from him in exchange, she always added with a laugh.

I couldn't for the life of me wrap my head around this custom either: How was it possible that a man could simply take a woman as his wife without her consent — with only the agreement of the parents, or the father? This prospect unsettled me so much that I had a recurring dream in which a very old man — even older than my grandmother's neighbor — forced me to marry him. In the dream, he hid in the bushes and suddenly seized me when I was about to return to the homestead after fetching water from the river. No one heard me crying for help as the man tried to drag me home with him. Eventually, I managed to break free from him and run away. But when I finally got back to my parents, I found out that he had already given my family several cows as a bride price. So I was already married, and no one had thought it necessary to ask me or even inform me. For nights on end, I was haunted by this nightmare, and whenever I woke up from it, I would lie sleepless and sweating in my bed for hours.

In general, marriage among the Luo was actually far from being as dramatic as it was in my nightly fantasies. Although the Luo regard it (along with death) as one of the most important events in a person's life — that goes for men as much as for women — a marriage in those days amounted to little more than a contract between two families.


Excerpted from And Then Life Happens by Auma Obama, Ross Benjamin. Copyright © 2012 Auma Obama. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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And Then Life Happens: A Sister's Memoir 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
pydollwillie More than 1 year ago
This is a must very informative about the Obama's family make-up and history. I enjoyed it very much!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She is President Obama's sister, she is African and she is black. Not good for right wing bigots and the like. Every else should enjoy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
bookloverNM More than 1 year ago
Auma talks about her life in Africa, while president Obama was growing up in America. What a wonderful story she tells and all she has done so far in her young life! READ IT
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This well-written and well-translated (from the German) autobiography by the Presidednt's (half-)sister Auma Obama reveals a person who haa had an interesting life in her own right.