Auma Obama, 52, is the sister of US President Barack Obama. She recently travelled to South Africa to promote her book, And Then Life Happens. KHADIJA PATEL talked with her and found her to be warm, humble, analytical – and much more than the president’s sister.
The last time I was awarded such close proximity to a member of the Obama family, the meeting was dulled by long periods of waiting and frequent friskings by grim-faced secret service agents. In Michelle Obama was important, and the swarms of people around her knew she was important. Even outside the well-guarded confines of that meeting, her trip to South Africa last year raised the hackles of many Jo’burgers for exacerbating their traffic troubles.
I expected, then, to expect the same self-importance during my interview with Barack Obama’s sister, Auma Obama, at the Fire and Ice Hotel in Johannesburg’s Melrose Arch. I was surprised to encounter Ms Obama with none of the visual markers of her relationship to a person of such esteem. But then, I had already been treated to what I interpreted as her aversion to being received as Barack’s sister.
She was in Johannesburg to promote her book, And Then Life Happens, and after setting up the interview, PanMacmillan, her publisher in South Africa, requested my questions to be sent through days ahead of the interview itself. I obliged, sending through questions that probed her feelings and observations of the differences in women’s political participation in the US and her native Kenya. She was, after all, the sister of the US President, and had worked on his campaign, so surely she must have gauged something during that time to share. And there was, of course, the question of whether or not she would ever pursue a similar path in Kenya.
I received a rebuke from PanMacmillan: “Dr Auma is not American and therefore cannot take an informed position on American women in politics. Any chance you can try to be more diverse with who Dr Auma is and her book?” Until then, I had not watched or listened to any of the other interviews Obama had participated in, but at least one person told me that she had been visibly irritated by questions about her brother during a television interview earlier that week.
And yet, as I was introduced to her, I was surprised at her friendly demeanour. She was warm, smiling broadly, and waving away my apology for having kept her waiting. But as we sat down to chat, Obama asked me to turn off the recorder and first give her an outline of the questions I was about to ask. I obliged again, telling her that I was fascinated by her identity as an independent woman, a humanitarian, a published author and her branding as “Obama’s sister”. She nodded thoughtfully and consented for the interview to begin.
Daily Maverick (DM): Do you get tired of being called Barack Obama’s sister?
Auma Obama (Obama): I don’t get tired of being called Barack Obama’s sister because I am. I get tired of being called Barack Obama’s “half-sister” because I’m not. In our culture he’s just my brother, I’m his sister, so being called Barack Obama’s sister, I have no problem with that at all. I guess it becomes an issue when people see me as an extension of him and focus on that. So I guess this sense of “we’re inviting Barack Obama’s sister”, “we’re speaking to Barack Obama’s sister” to get closer to Barack Obama and find out more about him. To an extent it is justified, but that’s not all that I’m about, so I’m very conscious of that, and I’m conscious of making people aware of that and trying to make that clear that is part of the conversation.
DM: How do you then still manage a sense of self against a sense of being Barack Obama’s sister?
Obama: I manage that because Barack Obama’s in his present situation as the president of the United States is a very new thing, and it’s also something very temporary. I’ve been around for a lot longer, so I’ve already defined myself long before he became the president of the United States so in my own right I have my own identity. So in that sense I am able to, well, actually I’m learning, and I keep having to adjust to being Barack Obama’s sister, who is the president of the United States. But being me as Auma Obama, that is not an issue. It’s trying to accommodate the “new” – this new role that I’m received in, the attention I get, this visibility I get. In terms of my identity I think I’m pretty secure, as best one can be.
DM: Do you think that, as women, our roles in relation to the “stronger male personalities” in our lives still reconcile our relationships to them with our sense of self? You seem to have managed that – how have you done this? For example, I have friends who take issue with being known as so-and-so’s wife; what do you say to them?
Obama: Well, you know in my case, and yes, I’m trying to make a little sales pitch here, I’d say buy my book and read my story, because that is the story of my life, really. I’ve always had to manoeuvre in the space between trying to work with – and I won’t even say accommodate, because as a young person it’s not even your place to accommodate – it’s your place to adapt and adjust, and I’ve been doing that since I was very little. I remember, my earliest memory of trying to take my position as a human being and trying to be seen as a human being and not just as the daughter of someone or as the girl of the family, or the sister. I’ve always questioned this – I can’t do certain things just because I’m a girl. So all my life I’ve fought this position I was pushed into and I grew up with a lot of boys, I was the only girl and my father was a very, very strong personality. My family, the Luo people, the people that I come from in Western Kenya in themselves are very macho – it’s very patriarchal. They are very confident in the assertion of their manhood in terms of being the heads of the family and all that. So I had to deal with all of that from an early age and one of the things you do, and I write about this in my book, is part of asking why, and not accepting the status quo. [It] made my father pull his hair out, because he felt, “Why can’t you just behave and be a girl?”
One of the big steps I took very, very early on was when I finished high school – I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to go study in Germany, and I went without telling my father. It was difficult as well, because at that time, until you were 21, you needed to have your father’s signature in order to get a passport. And of course I didn’t want to get his signature because I was afraid he would stop me from going, because he wanted to make the decisions that affect my life and here I was suddenly saying, “I want to do this and I’m making this decision”. So I had to get my mum involved and she became part of my little plan, and luckily I succeeded in getting an exception and getting my mum to sign for my passport.
So that little rebellious streak helped me to pave my own path in life. Not everybody can do that and I was just driven to the extent that I went away, and being away helped me to define myself and my position. And I went to a country that was very much, at that time in the 80s, concerned with women’s rights and equality. It was kind of the peak of the feminist movement in Europe and Germany at the time, and I just went with that. I was amazed by it – I felt, “Wow nobody really cares that I am a woman, people listen to me when I talk – I can take a position and I can have a strong opinion on things, it’s not a problem, it’s not rude, it’s not challenging the males’ positions and the status quo.” So I moved into a space that allowed me to craft my own identify and develop who I was as a person, as a woman. I didn’t have to defend the fact that I was a woman. I didn’t have to justify the fact that I was a woman.
There were, of course, other issues of being African, and an African woman there, that came into play, but that was something I dealt with, and also helped to grow my character. But at the core of being just a woman I was happy to move into a space that gave me the space to develop and to grow and to form as a person. So my experience is a lucky one, and of course now as an adult having carved my own path, moved into my profession through my own strengths and my own abilities, I am quite comfortable with where I am and I don’t really get challenged as a woman very much. Apart perhaps from some of our traditions where we have certain rituals going on where suddenly it’s like, “The women this, this, this and that”, and my ears kind of pick up and I have a big question mark on my face. My family knows me and they accept me and they accommodate who I am now, as a person and as a woman. So I’ve been very lucky.
DM: Do you still have a place in your culture?
Obama: Culturally, if you look at it strictly from a traditional point of view, there are certain things that still clash with how I feel as a person and how I feel I need to be treated as a person and not just a woman. I’ll give you an example. Traditionally, in our culture, women don’t own land. It’s a patriarchal system. So in my ancestral home I have no “place”. I can’t claim unless we follow the modern and western tradition, where my grandmother, who is still alive, decides to let me inherit some of the land. But traditionally the land goes to the male members of the family, and I am not allowed to own land because it’s assumed that I will marry and join my husband and belong to his family. So the woman belongs to the family of the man she marries, and that’s a tradition that still prevails in our culture. So if I were to pass away – God forbid, too soon – and if I were unmarried, I could not be buried in the ancestral home. I would have to be buried outside it.
There are still traditions that prevail, but because of the Western influence, they are becoming less and less prominent in our lives, and women are moving on with their independence and finding their own paths – being able to acquire land elsewhere – you’re able to work to find alternatives, and that is the great thing. Even in my work with young people, what I say when people say to me, “Oh, you fled Germany. You left (home) because you needed to get away from the restraints from just being a ‘girl’ and finding your own path, so how is it you’ve come back?” And I say, “I’ve come back, and what has happened now, and what I see in Kenya now, is girls have more options.” You have choices you can make around how you want to live your life. You can be very traditional and be the third wife of a man with five other women or you can be a very independent woman who decides, ‘I’m not going to get married. I’m not going to have kids.’ So you have the possibility of choices and I think we have the exposure to the choices because the thing about choices is not that they are just there. It’s about being able to know that they are there.
So young girls need to be informed about them and then have access to them. So we who have been blessed, able to move into that space – like myself – we need to create these opportunities and create a platform for young girls to know that they have choices and to be able to grasp the opportunities that are there – for them to be able to grasp an identity that is not just based on their gender and on the fact they are girls.
DM: A lot of people would argue that is a euro-centric approach. African cultures hold merit for the context within which they exist. How do you respond to people who believe we shouldn’t be importing these Western norms and European ideals to Africa because they don’t work for us?
The first thing I would say, then, is then don’t send your girls to school. Don’t live a Western life. And if I’m not mistaken, you can go to any country in Africa, especially the capitals, the West is there. And the West is there to stay. Almost all African countries were colonised. So we have that heritage as well. The fact that I can sit here with you and have this conversation means we have embraced the Western culture in the fact that we are travelling, we are educated, we are writing. And men are doing exactly the same. So it’s not even a gender thing. The men are also adjusting. I don’t think all men are anti-women and want to oppress women. I think it’s our societies and our cultures – the way they were before that tied us a certain pattern of living – and for a reason for that time. But we’re not there anymore. We are completely different. You cannot send your daughter to school and teach her to read and write and teach her to use her brain, teach her to demonstrate her intelligence, and then tell her, “You cannot use that intelligence. You have to stop thinking.” It’s not physically possible to do that. So if you want that kind of a life, you, yourself even as a male member of your family, you have to give up the Western traits and traditions, and that’s not going to happen.
So let’s not have this pretence – this hypocrisy – around what it means to be African. People fall back on this because it’s an easy excuse to get away with things that only please themselves – and that’s also not African. To be honest, as an African society, all of the traditions that were there, despite whatever we think of them now, they had a reason. It added up. Even the polygamy added up. For all of its terribleness, even circumcision had a role as a ritual in becoming a man or a woman – even if it was not the best one to have. But it made sense at that time and within that context. Even though it was a dangerous practice and it led towards oppression, particularly against women, but it was the belief of the time. But we’ve gone on from there. We’ve moved on. And we can’t try to use it to oppress one or the other – in terms of race or gender.
Apartheid was justified by the belief that certain people were greater beings – they were more superior, so we can go back to that as well. Does anybody want that? You try explaining it to the guys who are deadbeat on saying “We want to keep this Apartheid structure”, so it’s all relative. And at the end of the day, it’s about human beings and how you teach human beings in order to make sure to create a community that is healthy, that is prospering where everybody is able to have a dignified life, be they man, woman, child, or adult. That’s what it boils down to.
There’s no way you can argue that an African culture must be pure. Nothing is pure anymore. We are integrated.
DM: In this integration of the world, then, what part of your home culture would you like to see adopted more globally?
Obama: In the West, young people have a real problem with their identity. In my culture, for example, we have initiation into adulthood, and I always say the steps towards initiation have been built by the adults, by the people who have come before us. There are clear paths to adulthood embedded in our traditions. Some are not really the best – for example, female circumcision – that have to be questioned and alternatives searched for, but there’s a real consciousness in our cultures for the initiation of young people into adulthood. Whereas in the Western culture, there’s been such a great divide between the youths and the adults – they’ve moved apart from each other.
There’s a real generation gap and no communication between the two, which leads to the youth drifting and not really being sure, “How do I behave until I become an adult?” The young have lost respect for adults and the lives they lead, while adults have a certain fear and anxiety of young people. In working with young people in England, I found it very hard to work with young people there because they didn’t have the faith in adults. I found that really, really sad and something they could borrow from us.
And with that, my time was up. Her next interview had already arrived.
Auma Obama is so much more than just Barack’s sister. She is a fascinating woman with her own intriguing story. She just happens to be related to a very famous man – perhaps a relationship that makes her more aware of who she is and what she says.
She does not function as an extension of her brother by any means, and does not claim any additional political wisdom due to their relationship. “I can’t speak for America, because I’ve never lived there,” she told me at one point in our discussion.
But she’s not unaware of her potential influence, either. As I was about to turn off my recorder, she produced a football signed by her brother, and asked if I’d pose for a picture with her and the ball – it’s all part of world tour she’s undertaken, getting the ball photographed with different people and later added to a website that will accept funds for a charity in Kenya.
Far from being dwarfed by her relationship with her brother, it seems, she’s been able to use it to assert herself and her own ambitions, in the space she’s spent a lifetime carving for herself. DM