A Eulogy to Granny Sarah
Days ago, on the eve of the Chinese Day of Remembrance known as Qingmingjie, my paternal grandmother, Granny Sarah Obama passed. Ever since then I have been thinking about her, the only member of the Obama Family who unreservedly welcomed me back into the fold after my long absence (or self-imposed exile).
Below is my eulogy to the memory of this wonderful woman. It is taken from my memoir Cultures, My Odyssey of Self-Discovery (later to be updated in the US as An Obama’s Journey, Lyons Press).
Note: The characters and events portrayed and the names used herein are based on my personal recollection. Clearly my recollection is not perfect, and, if in error, I beg the reader’s indulgence.
Xue Hua and I took a taxi for the airport a few minutes before sunrise. From Mombasa Road we could see a faint blush steadily lighting up the horizon behind the acacia trees. At the terminal security check a policeman briefly loomed over the driver and then glanced into the rear of the car. “It’s normal for taxis,” the driver explained. I had other things on my mind. I was excited about finally flying to my ancestral home and seeing Granny Sarah, but I felt some trepidation also. How would I be received by her? My heart was beating rapidly. The cold morning air gave me little comfort, but I knew I could not turn back, not now. The Luo words and phrases I had learnt rolled through my mind.
Amosi. . . Wabironenore. . . Nyasaye omedi ngima.
Some say the real Obama homestead is in Kendu Bay, but I have no experience of that place. Alego-Kogelo, faintly remembered, was my ancestral home, the place I had visited often as a child, and Granny Sarah was at its core.
The flight was short, lasting about 30 minutes. When we stepped off the double-propeller plane, the blazing noonday heat of Western Nyanza province surrounded us like a furnace. For some reason, I thought of my mother stepping off a plane in Africa in 1964, her white face and hands smooth and unlined, and being immediately seduced by her surroundings.
As with Ruth before me, there was no one at the airport to greet us. I learnt later that Said Obama, our host, had been expecting us to arrive later. As if from nowhere, a woman in a bright yellow jacket came up to us, smiling broadly.
“I have seen you before,” she said. “You are Obama’s brother. Welcome home.”
“Excuse me, “ I said. “Who are you?”
“My name is Bright,” she said. “I am a supervisor here at the airport. I know Mama Sarah and your family!”
I thought of the supervisor Mary Radier, a Luo woman, who had befriended my mother when she arrived in Kenya. How similar some things were here, even 40 years later.
Others stepped out of the shadows and into the bright sunlight to welcome us. A man in airport yellow came up to us, a toothy smile on his swarthy face.
“Do you remember me?” he said happily. “ I am Obongo. I knew you when you were very young!”
We hugged instinctively.
“I often drive Granny’s guests to see her. Your father’s sister was my mother,”
He was one of many uncles I would meet that day. All of them would welcome us home.
The owner of the “canteen”, a small cluster of plastic chairs set under the mango trees, introduced himself next.
“I knew your father. I had to go abroad to study, and he helped me get authorization for a passport. He was a very friendly man. . . ”
Sometimes, people will say anything to ingratiate themselves with strangers, but all these words and actions seemed genuine to me. This was the warmth of Africa, the reaction of family. We chatted while we waited for my uncle Said Obama, who arrived shortly afterward.
Saying farewell to the small crowd, we sped off towards the lake, leaving behind the sun-spangled tin roofs of the airport. We checked into a local Kisumu hotel for our one-night stay, and drove off straight away to see Granny Sarah.
The white-crested egrets that live beside Lake Victoria called out again and again, as though repeating my Luo name Okoth. Said Obama confirmed Ida’s explanation of the song.
“These birds always used to be around the cattle. They would wait for them to stir up the insects in the grass, and then eat them.”
Our car rattled over frequent potholes. Overhead, the equatorial sun shone without remorse as we left the buildings and paved roads of Kisumu for Kogelo.
Kogelo lies in a once-forgotten part of Siaya district, off the rain-ravaged Bondo road, about 30 kilometers from Kisumu, where the candelabrum and mango trees hover over the scrub, and the huge boulders of Maseno seem about to topple over but never do. From time to time the wind, like the breath of a genie, blows a swirl of yellow dust.
I felt I was like those birds, wanting to be free from family and responsibilities but always called back to the earth, urged to settle around Kogelo.
“Your father walked eighteen kilometers each day to school,” Said said from the front seat. “He would get up at four or earlier to go to the shamba, milk the cattle and the goats. At around six-thirty he would walk to school, then return in the evening. He would do various chores, including tending to the cattle. Then from about seven to nine he would do his homework.”
Said Obama is the youngest son of Barack Obama Sr.’s father, Hussein Onyango. He is tall, his face somewhat aquiline. His eyes are remarkable, always wide and inquiring, as if surprised, even a little taken aback, by life’s unpredictable turns.
Today he was my teacher. I listened carefully to him. Who else would tell me these things? Most of my relatives knew nothing of me. Even if they did, the ones who really knew, like Granny Sarah, could not speak English.
“I believe that a hard life is what makes us appreciate the small things,” said Said, and lapsed into silence.
We stopped at the high school my father had attended. School had already started in Siaya district. Except for the schools and government offices, Kisumu and Alego were sleepy places, like dusky holograms stuck in slow motion. There were few people on the streets, and half the businesses had their doors shut.
“In January everyone has spent money on school fees, and there is none left for buying things and eating out,” the driver who was a friend of Said’s explained.
“Your father went to Maseno High School from nineteen fifty-one to fifty-five,” the assistant headmaster told us. He was a young man, in his late-thirties perhaps, who sat with an air of authority behind a creaking wooden desk.
“I cannot say more without the approval of the headmaster, but if you come back tomorrow I’m sure you can walk around and take some photos,” he added, somewhat apologetically.
As it turned out, we would not come back. The following day Auma Obama called Said and told him I was not welcome there.
“Dr Auma has control over access to your father’s records,” the assistant headmaster had told us.
But I did not need to see photographs or other records, I just wanted to experience these surroundings. After the meeting we walked around the campus. Maseno’s magnificent trees loomed over the corrugated-iron roofs of the low-level mud-and-brick school buildings. Students in green cardigans and dark slacks walked about urgently to myriad appointments.
From time to time throughout the day, I thought of Barack Obama Sr.’s other surviving children: Barack Jr., Auma, George and Malik. All of them had struggled to make sense of a life filled with a dizzying range of choices, complicated by nature and nurture. My brother Barack now occupied a rarefied sphere, ever-more remote from our lives. I had never met George, but I knew he too had been struggling with the sudden and shallow glare of the world’s attention.
I texted Auma to let her know I was in town. She sent an angry reply, accusing me of opportunism regarding our father and adding that she had nothing more to say to me. She still had not forgiven me for publishing Nairobi to Shenzhen, in which I had revealed the truth about the domestic abuse my father had inflicted on us. I still remembered that night many years ago when she had opened the door to him, and my furious father had held a knife to my mother’s throat. Does she regret this, and perhaps feel that I am striking back? I sometimes wondered.
I realized with some sadness that Auma formed absolute judgments, without nuance, perhaps because for so long she was forced, by circumstance and misfortune, to choose between black or white, without the option of gray. Later she called my borrowed phone by accident.
“How are you, Auma?” I responded.
“Fine. . . I’m fine.” Her voice sounded strained.
“I wanted to come back here. . . back home.”
“I see. I see.”
There was a long uncomfortable silence.
“Well, see you soon,” was all I could add.
We were hiding our true feelings, our words thick with fear and dishonesty.
“Give my regards to Akinyi. She is a bright, remarkable girl,” I closed our awkward conversation.
I held no malice towards my sister. Her only fault, if it can be called one, was having loved our father absolutely.
I looked at the motto above the gate of his school.
Perseverance Shall Win Through.
The school badge was a red cross, an open book and a tree.
“It was established in 1906 and is one of the best schools here. The students work very hard,” Said told me.
The school was located exactly on the equator. A small roundabout. planted with flowers and with the words EQUATOR painted on a border of white bricks, seemed like a symbolic link between the worlds of America and Kenya, which my father inhabited and struggled with for much of his life.
“He had one foot in the west and one in Kenya, and it was not easy for him,” a family friend had told me during a small party at our home in Nairobi, the day before I left for Kogelo. “When he came back it must have been a huge change. And things were not easy for white women married to blacks then. Even after independence, there were rules and regulations, zoning laws that made it illegal for people to live in some places. If a black and a white wanted to live somewhere, they had to get special approval.”
I remembered what my mother had told me when we’d visited our first home, the house in Rosslyn where I was born.
“It was very lonely. There was a white couple next door but they wanted nothing to do with a white woman married to a black man.
“I didn’t care,” she added ruefully. “ I used to ignore those things.”
Perseverance. We all need perseverance. She did not quit, and lived seven years with Barack Obama Sr.
“Sometimes Granny would take your father by bicycle to school,” Said told me when we were back in the car.
“Bicycles were a luxury then, and we were lucky to have one for a while. My mother had a hard life. She would grow beans, sukuma, and carry ninety-kilogram bags on her back to the market fifteen kilometres away, to sell them. She would come back to attend to the homestead and look after my father, your grandfather, who was working for the British or out of the country. Then she would take your father to school. She did this every day for many years.”
“What about my grandfather?” I said, thinking of the stern man who had driven away my grandmother.
“Later he was very old and not easy to look after.”
After driving through a dusty, hilly area of scrub vegetation and ever-thicker copses of trees, we entered a flat area of gated homestead with small shambas of crops, and brick-built houses. Women carrying pails on their heads looked at us curiously as we drove by. Some schoolchildren seemed to start with surprise on seeing my relatively pale face.
“That is where Malik lives.” Said pointed out one of the houses to me. The blue- roofed building stood in a large meadow surrounded by a tall iron fence. My goal today was to see Granny, but if time permitted perhaps my brother and I would meet again.
Granny’s homestead lay ahead. A police officer opened the gate for us and we drove up to the small brick house set before a huge mango tree. We walked straight into a modest living room. After a few minutes Granny entered. On seeing me she rushed over.
“Okoth, ume rudi [you are here]!” she roared in her deep, strong voice.
Without waiting for an answer she hugged me, grasped my hand, and pulled me down on the couch. Xue Hua sat beside me, Said across from us, translating.
“My knee is acting up,” Granny said. We held each other’s hand throughout the visit. At first she had not looked straight at me, as though a direct gaze was too powerful a thing, and only the touch of hands, the feeling of skin against skin, could be borne. When our eyes finally met I said what I had come to say, words that completed a dialogue between me and Kogelo that had existed off and on for almost 40 years.
“Adwogo Dala,” I said. I have returned home.
The Luo phrase I had memorized flowed effortlessly from my tongue. I had practiced these words so many times. Like a Buddhist mantra, they had resounded in my mind for days.
She smiled and we hugged silently. I kissed her on both cheeks. She gave me a robust peck on mine, almost like a bashful lover.
“Ma Jiao Dha,” I introduced Xue Hua. This is my wife.
Xue Hua also hugged my granny. For she was indeed my granny. I did not need the permission of others, like headmasters, record-keepers and bitter family members, to call her so. With her support I had returned, just as I had taken back the name that was my birthright.
“I asked you to come and bring your wife, and you have done the right thing today,” Granny Sarah told me.
A young woman entered the room and took my hand. One by one, others came in. We greeted each other in Luo. There was a powerful energy in the room. It was as though Granny’s enthusiasm and honesty filled everyone around her. Every so often, particularly when I laughed, she would laugh too. It was a deep throaty sound. Her teeth gleamed with happiness, her whole body shook, and her wrinkled face was wreathed with joy.
“Why did you leave me so long, Okoth?” she said at length. She looked at me sidelong when she spoke, as though still not fully trusting what her eyes told her.
“There was much I wanted to forget about this place because of the pain I had gone through. . . because of what my mother had seen and felt. I wanted nothing to do with my father or here…” I tried to explain.
“But how could you just turn your back?” she persisted. “I loved you so much, and you loved me. I remember you used to play with the chickens and dogs all the time, and with me. Then, all of a sudden you never came back.”
“I’m sorry for the pain I caused you, Dani.”
I did not know why I had prepared this phrase in Luo beforehand, but I had. I suppose part of me had always recognized the pain she must have felt when her youngest grandson had stayed away for over 40 years, the absence marked by the white birds that annually cross Lake Victoria in skeins of white, threading their way to far-off lands.
Xue Hua gave Granny another big hug and also said a few words in Luo, which everyone in the room appreciated. Later they gave her a Luo name, Achieng, which means “born during the daylight”.
“You were on the wrong path,” my grandmother told me. “And in that you did wrong, but let bygones be bygones. We are now starting again.”
“Why didn’t anyone let me know my father had died?” I asked her. She and Said, who had translated some of our conversation, discussed this spiritedly. Xue Hua and I listened without comprehending the fast flow of Luo.
“I think your mother knew,” I was told.
Somewhat carelessly, I told Granny I did not remember my mother telling me.
“If your mother did not tell you, then she was wrong.”
“I do not know what happened. I think maybe this is something she may have told you but you did not remember,” my uncle said slowly.
I nodded my head. Finally it made sense.
Guests arrived, and Granny left us to greet them. Meanwhile Said showed me my father’s grave. With a shock, I saw that it was within feet of the house. I had expected we would need to drive elsewhere. I had also not been sure I wanted to see it. Next to meeting Granny, everything else, even my father’s resting place, had seemed peripheral. Now I was standing before his headstone.
Barack Hussein Obama
Ibed Gi Kwe
The Luo words for Rest In Peace.
I removed my sunglasses. I do not know if it was the blazing heat that affected me, or some emotion within, but tears trickled down my face. I stood for several minutes before the white-and-yellow-tiled grave which seemed to look back at me, neither accusing nor absolving.
A few feet behind was the larger gravestone of my grandfather:
Hussein Obama Onyango
Jaduong means “the old man”.
Later we rejoined Granny. She was talking to a group of men and women, all seated in a circle under the shade of the mango tree. She gestured to me and I introduced my wife and myself in Luo. These people were the village chief, family friends and relatives, including brothers of my father, and men who claimed to know me but whom I still did not recognize. My mind was still reeling from the shock of seeing the grave.
“Granny, what do you remember of my mother?” I asked her eventually.
“I remember her. She was with us for only a short time, but I think she was a good woman. But we did not know her very well.”
“Some people told me that because I had used another man’s name, the Obama family had cut me off and that’s one reason we stayed apart so many years.”
The chief vehemently shook his head.
“That is not our custom.”
“Perhaps some clans have their own traditions, but we do not do that. But let us hear Granny,” Said said.
“Your brother David was among us, and played and talked with us. He was one of us, no matter what his name.” Granny looked at me as she said this, and everyone nodded in agreement. “You are of this land.”
“Granny,” I said, “I believe that too. I have come home. Adwogo Dala. My name is Mark Okoth Obama Ndes. . . ”
Before I could finish, she interrupted me.
“Okoth Obama. . . in this place!” she laughed.
It was late-afternoon when at last I let go of Granny’s hand and bid her farewell. My eyes were wet. I still felt incomplete. As I was sitting in the car, she heaved herself up with difficulty on her walking stick and came over. She was still beaming with happiness. I stepped out of the car again and hugged her for a long time, this woman I truly loved.
“Oriti Dani.” Goodbye, Granny.
“Don’t forget to come back home,” she answered, pressing me close. Her tear-filled eyes were inches from my face, sharp and clear, full of love.
“Wabironenore. Nyasaye Omedingima.” I will be back. God bless you.
As we drove off, I considered stopping to say hello to Malik, but decided not to do so. It would be too casual, too rushed, the moments spent together too superficial after the joy of my reunion with Granny Sarah. I wanted to call him but did not have his phone number. Neither did Said. I remembered Auma’s words, uttered during the campaign,: There is a time for everything.
I remembered how, when I was just off the plane, the cafeteria owner had told me how Barack Obama Sr. helped him. On that and the following day I would hear many other stories of my father’s warm and gracious side, the good part of him I never knew.
“How could he have been this way outside the family and so bad to us?” I asked my uncle.
“We were far away so we could not see. But we knew of the good things.”
Said recounted many such tales of my father while he was growing up, and mentioned one in particular.
“We had once gone drinking in the evening, and were driving back to Alego when we saw a neighbor on the street. She waved us down and told us her nephew had just died. We helped her bring the body back to his hometown, far, far away. We barely had enough petrol and thought we would not make it. In those days no one else would help her. She was poor and alone.”
He talked slowly, plainly moved by the memory.
As I left Kogelo, I was not bitter. I did not hate my father. There was not even any sadness. It was as though I had left that part of my life behind, and a new chapter had begun. It was not the good stories about my father that now gave me succor and wiped away the hurt. Nor was it just this place. It was mostly the people, and the sense that I was back where I had come from.
My story is one of fathers and sons, of forces that impel boys – like birds with white feathers – to fly away and leave their homes, returning like prodigals years, or even decades, later. It is a story of Kogelo, my home, and of China, and of America. It is a story of regaining a piece of my life, part of a larger puzzle in which there still remain many gaps and jagged edges. But one piece at least is finally in the right place.
Ibed Gi Kwe.
A few days later, on the red-eye back to Shenzhen, I looked down over the humming Rolls-Royce engines. The city’s lights sparkled across the peninsula like a vast jeweled belt, and a familiar feeling of elation washed over me at the sight of them. This place has been my home for over ten years, I thought. The following day I knew I would return to my lessons at the Welfare Center, continue my calligraphy, practice piano and tend to my business, with my wife beside me and the backing of my family around the globe.
The city’s shared minibuses that I remember from my first years here are gone now, but taxis swarm for fares around the exits of the the new subway lines. Swaying on the balls of their feet, old men and women still walk their grandchildren past the mahjong players in the streets. The electronics market at Hua Cheng Bei is still an open, yawning mouth, crowded with DVD hawkers and agile, chain-smoking young men. At the bustling Luo Hu entry-point, doe-eyed, raven-haired girls still arrive lugging huge plastic bags of possessions from their villages in the provinces. Just as I was, multitudes from all over China and abroad are drawn to Shenzhen, winding their way through grassy fields or along tracks of smoke and steel. . . in search of love, money or fame.
In my personal odyssey I have found every sort of love: selfish and magnanimous, lustful and chaste, innocent and opportunistic, returned and unrequited, all-consuming and petty, divine and lusty, serious and humorous. . . love that reaches across race and religion and extends back as far as time itself.
A children’s refuge has become a place where I can sink back into anonymity or face the glare of the spotlights, equally without fear. In the streets outside, the magnificent mangroves of Jing Tian Road claw their way into the concrete below, their gentle boughs shading slow-walking families from the spring rain. Like drops of water on a leaf, or pearls on a vast jade plate, my life retains its familiar outlines while ready at any moment to slide into the unknown. But always it reflects light from three great sources, three cultures, the three places I call home.