c.2014 New York Times News Service
BOSTON — After Zeituni Onyango, the woman President Barack Obama once called Auntie, died in a Boston nursing home this month, her closest relatives gathered her belongings at her nearby apartment. There, framed photographs of her with the president covered the wall.
Weeping before a polished wood coffin at her wake this past Saturday, they described Onyango, the half-sister of the president’s father, as “the spirit of the Obama family” and talked about raising money to send her body back to Kenya. Obama helped pay funeral expenses and sent a condolence note, Onyango’s family members said, but the president did not attend, as he was golfing.
Every complicated family is complicated in its own way. The Obamas, in that sense, are ordinary. But the natural drift that has occurred within the family — already separated by oceans and languages — is exacerbated by politics.
“He leads his life and I lead my life,” said Obama’s half-brother, Malik Obama, who flew in for the wake and spoke emotionally about Onyango, his aunt, who was 61. He said he “wouldn’t say” he and the president had stayed close. “Because even my other brothers and sisters, they are all over the place,” Malik Obama added. “Right now, I would say that things have changed.”
As president, Obama has kept his distance from, and even failed to acknowledge, members of this eclectic clan. In the time-honored tradition of eccentric presidential relatives, the assorted Obamas have faced deportation and drunken-driving charges, started Obama-branded foundations and written memoirs.
But they also made for a powerful element of the president’s Kansas-meets-Kenya narrative as a candidate who could connect different worlds. A delegation of African relatives flew in for Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and received royal treatment. An aunt beamed when the first couple admired her traditional dress on the platform, brothers and uncles partied at special balls, and the whole family proudly posed with the new president after he led them on a tour of the White House.
Now, as the president has embraced the family more culturally near to him — the half-sister on his mother’s side with whom he remained close, the Ivy League-educated brother-in-law he bonds with over basketball, the mother-in-law who lives upstairs — the Obamas are often relegated to the farther branches of his family tree.
In the White House, officials who have seen the president’s reaction to his African relatives say that he is unfairly expected to answer for people with whom he has little relationship. “This is the president’s personal family, so we are not going to have any comment,” said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman.
Today, many are doing their own thing, although often that has something to do with their connection to Obama. Malik Obama, the president’s half-brother and best man at his wedding, now splits his time between Nairobi and Maryland and runs the Barack H. Obama Foundation.
“What can I say? It’s not doing as well as I would like for it to do,” said Malik Obama, 54, who has raised money for the charity from friends in Yemen and Libya, where he was supportive of Moammar Gadhafi. “I’m committed to it, and the reason for setting it up was the memory of my old man.”
For years, Malik Obama has been promoting his book, “Barack Obama Sr.: The Rise and Life of a True African Scholar.” But he is hardly the only Obama relative with a book to sell.
A younger half-brother of the president, George, published “Homeland: An Extraordinary Story of Hope and Survival.” A half-sister, Auma, the African relative closest to the president, wrote a memoir, “And Then Life Happens,” and was featured in the documentary “The Education of Auma Obama.” (She declined to comment through her publicist.) Her former husband, Ian Manners, who is white and met the president several times, is finishing a book about corruption in Kenya with the working title, “Our Brother, Mr. President.” A resident of Britain, he also unsuccessfully ran for Parliament in an Obama-inspired campaign.
Onyango also published a memoir, “Tears of Abuse.” She first met Obama in 1988, during his first trip to Kenya, and warned him about losing track of their African family.
In 2000, Onyango moved to the United States on a valid visa and in 2001, when Obama was an Illinois state senator, she helped take care of his newborn daughter, Sasha, and did household chores for the family in Chicago, according to Obama family members. But she stayed illegally after unsuccessfully seeking asylum. When reporters found her in Boston public housing during the 2008 election, Obama’s aides said he did not know she was in the United States illegally and returned her $265 in campaign contributions.