Obama’s foreign policy: it’s all in the family

The president-elect’s ‘exotic’ relatives reveal little about him, but may legitimise greater US intervention in Africa.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics USA

The day before the US election, reporters from The Times (London) brought the gift of a goat to a Kenyan village. The newspaper’s driver spotted a quality specimen (apparently it had big testicles), which the reporters purchased and brought to the village of Kogelo. There, the Kenyan branch of the US president-elect’s family was preparing a victory party in honour of Obama, the ‘lost son’ of Kenya.

Kogelo has been the scene of an intense media circus over the past few months, as journalists have descended on Obama’s ancestral home to dig up quirky stories about his exotic background and to take pictures of the African villagers sitting barefoot in primitive mud huts with chickens clucking around their feet or performing jubilant dances in traditional garb.

Perhaps The Times took inspiration from those Western charities which every Christmas ask us to send patronising gifts like goats, piles of dung or packs of condoms to the Third World and always seem to portray the recipients as smiley, innocent simpletons.

The hunt for Obama’s ‘roots’

Donating a goat worth just under £20 to the village of Kogelo was perhaps the least the press could do for the president-in-waiting’s distant relatives after months of tracking down members of their clan to fill the international news pages. The media have developed a fascination with Obama’s peculiar African relatives. Like those anthropologists who go looking for undiscovered Amazonian tribes, the press has sent out search parties to trace Obama’s ‘lost’ family members, as if these people – most of them virtual strangers to Obama – could somehow shed some light on who he really is.

There’s plenty of people to find. Obama’s Kenyan father and grandfather both sired several children with different wives. Barack Obama Sr is believed to have had eight children with four women. Obama’s Kenyan family tree is thus a sprawling and complicated one. But Obama barely knew his father, who used to be a goat herder in Kenya. Obama’s parents separated when he was just two. Soon after, Obama Sr returned to Kenya and he only came to visit his son once more, when Obama was 10. This would be the last time they met, as Obama Sr died a few years later in a car accident.

The Times discovered one relative, Obama’s father’s half-sister Zeituni Onyango, living in a disabled-access flat in a rundown public housing estate in Boston. It was this prize find which kicked off ‘Auntiegate’. The frail, 56-year-old Onyango’s life was poured over in great detail, and soon enough the media struck gold. The Associated Press revealed that Onyango was living in the US illegally. She was reportedly instructed to leave four years ago by an immigration judge who denied her asylum request. Now, police officers are stationed outside the housing complex where she lives and Onyango has had to go underground. She could face deportation.

Some seem to want to hold Obama to account for his kinfolks’ impoverished lives and to test his ‘family values’. The Times‘ report on Onyango, for example, stated accusingly: ‘Just across town from where Mr Obama made history as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, some of his closest blood relatives have confronted the harshness of immigrant life in America.’

Just a few months before Onyanga was found, Vanity Fair tracked down the youngest of Obama’s half siblings, George Hussein Onyango Obama, to a wooden hut in a Nairobi slum. Reports spread that he had been abandoned by his family and that he was miserable and barely surviving. The Republicans created a TV ad in which the narrator said: ‘If Barack Obama cares so much about your family, why doesn’t he take care of his own family first?’

In fact, George and Barack Obama met only twice; once when George was five and then again in 2006 when Senator Obama was on a tour of East Africa. George told Vanity Fair that ‘it was like meeting a complete stranger’. He later complained that the media had painted a distorted picture of his life. He said that he had been brought up very well, thanks very much – and that he still lives well. Apparently, he quite likes his neighbourhood and he hopes to become a car mechanic.

Sarah Hussein Onyango, the 87-year-old third wife of Obama’s grandfather, has also received much media attention. ‘Granny Sarah’, who has been labelled Obama’s step-grandmother, has regularly been seen in the news cheering for Obama in her tin-roofed African hut. When a bunch of thieves recently kicked in her front door and tried to pry off her solar panel, it became an international news story. Some journalists have pointed out that the resemblance between this matriarch and Senator Obama is unmistakable, which is strange since they are not even blood relatives.

Saving Africa

In fact, throughout the desperate hunts for Obama’s kinfolk, the definition of ‘relative’ seems to have been significantly broadened. Obama’s is now not so much a family tree as a family forest. Perhaps if the media keeps tracing it, it will turn out that Obama is related to the whole of Kenya or even the whole of Africa – hence the suggestion that Obama has a duty to care for and to save the entire continent.

Some African leaders seem to be pinning their hopes on this. After Obama’s victory was declared, South African President Kgalema Motlanthe said: ‘We express the hope that poverty and under-development in Africa, which remains a challenge for humanity, will indeed continue to receive a greater attention of the focus of the new administration.’ The country’s former president, Nelson Mandela, also had a message for Obama: ‘We trust that you will also make it the mission of your presidency to combat the scourge of poverty and disease everywhere.’

While Obama indicated in an interview on CBS that Onyango should be deported if she is found to have disobeyed the law, he does seems willing to come to the rescue of Africa.

It has been predicted that America’s role in resolving crises in Africa, including those in Darfur and in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, will feature strongly on Obama’s national security agenda. During an African tour in August 2006, Obama visited Darfurian refugees in eastern Chad. He has called the crisis in Darfur ‘genocide’ and has urged stronger action on it. His running mate Joe Biden has also argued for sending American troops into Sudan.

During his 2006 tour of Africa, Obama told cheering crowds in Nairobi that ‘you are all my brothers and sisters’. He promised to tell Americans about Kenyans’ troubles and to lobby for more aid. He and his wife Michelle took HIV tests to encourage locals to do the same. In his acceptance speech on Tuesday, Obama promised those in the ‘forgotten corners of the word’ that ‘a new dawn of American leadership is at hand’.

Obama sees America as a benevolent force, as having a moral duty to intervene in foreign affairs and to rescue less enlightened corners of the globe from themselves. We should not be surprised if Obama uses his African heritage as a way of explaining his sense of urgency in helping his ‘brothers and sisters’ and to back up decisions to meddle in the continent’s affairs in the future.

The media’s hunt for Obama’s relatives will only help to prop up this interventionist stance. But as the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia can testify, such ‘brotherly love’ can prove deadly.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics USA


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