By Toby Harnden
A new biography of Barack Obama has established that his grandfather was not, as is related in the President’s own memoir, detained by the British in Kenya and found that claims that he was tortured were a fabrication.
‘Barack Obama: The Story’ by David Maraniss catalogues dozens of instances in which Obama deviated significantly from the truth in his book ‘Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance’. The 641-page book punctures the carefully-crafted narrative of Obama’s life.
One of the enduring myths of Obama’s ancestry is that his paternal grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama, who served as a cook in the British Army, was imprisoned in 1949 by the British for helping the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebels and held for several months.
Obama’s step-grandmother Sarah, Onyango wife, who is still living, is quoted in the future President’s memoir, as saying: ‘One day, the white man’s askaris came to take Onyango away, and he was placed in a detention camp.
‘But he had been in the camp for over six months, and when he returned to Alego he was very thin and dirty. He had difficulty walking, and his head was full of lice. He was so ashamed, he refused to enter his house or tell us what happened.’
In a 2008 interview, Sarah Obama claimed that he was ‘whipped every morning and evening’ by the British. ‘They would sometimes squeeze his testicles with metal rods. They also pierced his nails and buttocks with a sharp pin, with his hands and legs tied together. He was lucky to survive. Some of his fellow inmates were mutilated with castration pliers and beaten to death with clubs.’
But Maraniss, who researched Obama’s life in Kenya, Indonesia, Hawaii and the mainland United States, found that there were ‘no remaining records of any detention, imprisonment, or trial of Hussein Onyango Obama’. He interviewed five people who knew Obama’s grandfather, who died in 1979, who ‘doubted the story or were certain it did not happen’.
This undermines the received wisdom that Obama’s grandfather was a victim of oppression, an assumption that has in turn fuelled theories that Obama harbours an animus towards Britain based on a deeply-rooted rage about the way Onyango was treated.
John Ndalo Aguk, who worked with Onyango before the alleged imprisonment and was in touch with him weekly afterwards said he ‘knew nothing’ about any detention and would have noticed if he had gone missing for several months.
Zablon Okatch, who worked with Onyango as a servant to American diplomats after the supposed incarceration, said: ‘Hussein was never jailed. I know that for a fact. It would have been difficult for him to get a job with a white family, let alone a diplomat, if he once served in jail.’
Charles Oluoch, whose father was adopted by Onyango, said that ‘he did not have any trouble with the government in any way’.
Dick Opar, a relative by marriage to Onyango and a senior Kenyan police official, gave what Maraniss judged to be the most authoritative word. ‘People make up stories,’ he said. ‘If you get arrested, you say it was the fight for independence, but they are arrested for another thing.
‘I would have known. I would have known. If he was in Kamiti Prison for only a day, even if for a day, I would have known.’
Maraniss also casts a sceptical eye on Obama’s grandmother’s tales of racism in Kansas, doubting whether she was ever chastised for addressing a black janitor as ‘Mister’ or ridiculed for playing with a black girl.
Obama himself, Maraniss finds, deliberately distorted elements of his own life to fit into a racial narrative. The author writes that Obama presents himself in his memoir as ‘blacker and more disaffected’ than he really was.
The memoir ‘accentuates characters drawn from black acquaintances who played lesser roles his real life but could be used to advance a line of thought, while leaving out or distorting the actions of friends who happened to be white’.
In the forward to his memoir, Obama wrote that ‘for the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology’.
But Maraniss writes that Obama’s book is ‘literature and memoir, not history and autobiography’ and concludes: ‘The character creations and rearrangements of the book are not merely a matter of style, devices of compression, but are also substantive.’
Writing about his schooldays, Obama created a friend called Regina, a symbol of the authentic black American experience that Obama yearns for.
Maraniss found, however, that Regina was based on Caroline Boss, a white student leader at Occidental College. Regina was the name of Boss’s Swiss grandmother.
The book also notes that Obama removed two white roommates in Los Angeles and New York from his story. Obama himself told Maraniss in a 90-minute interview that a racial incident involving a New York girlfriend had in fact happened in Chicago.
A tale of the father of Obama’s Indonesian stepfather Soewarno Martodihardjo being killed by Dutch soldiers as he fought for Indonesian independence turns out to be ‘a concocted myth in almost all respects’, Maraniss finds.
According to the book, both Obama’s father and his paternal grandfather were abusive towards women and Maraniss finds that Obama’s story that he was abandoned by his father when he was two was false – in fact, Obama’s mother fled to Washington state a year earlier, possibly because she was being beaten.
A character in Obama’s memoir called Ray, portrayed as a symbol of young blackness, is in fact based on a fellow pupil who was half Japanese, part native American and part black and was not a close friend.
‘In the memoir Barry and Ray, could be heard complaining about how rich white haole [upper class white Hawaiian] girls would never date them. In fact, neither had much trouble in that regard.’
Obama notes of his own grandfather that he was apt to create ‘history to conform with the image he wished for himself’.
Maraniss, who also wrote an acclaimed biography of Bill Clinton, suggests that throughout his life Obama himself, following on from his forbears on both sides, has done the same thing.