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.
In 2010, she received asylum and celebrated by telling an interviewer: “President Obama, I’m his aunt. If he does a wrong thing, I’m the only person on earth allowed to pinch his ears and smack him.”
Back in 1988, connecting to his African family was critical to Obama’s path to self-discovery and ultimately to his political ambitions.
In his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” he meditated on Auntie Zeituni’s use of the term “getting lost” to describe a family member who had lost touch. The family’s principal example at the time was the president’s uncle, Onyango Obama, known as Omar, who moved as a young man to Boston and went on to live there illegally for decades. In 2011, he was arrested in nearby Framingham on drunken-driving charges and told the booking officer, “I think I will call the White House.”
With an election on the horizon, the White House seemed to want nothing to do with the uncle, who also had an outstanding deportation order. White House officials said they had no record of any meeting between the president and his uncle, but in court last December, Omar Obama said his nephew had stayed with him for weeks in Cambridge before starting Harvard Law School in 1988.
“It’s a good thing to let your nephew stay with you,” he said after the hearing, adding that in his family, “your brother’s kids are your kids as well.”
Schultz acknowledged awkwardly at the time that the president did live with his uncle in the late 1980s and “after that, they saw each other once every few months, but after law school they fell out of touch.” He added, “The president has not seen him in 20 years, has not spoken with him in 10.”
It was Omar Obama, a taciturn man who now works in a Framingham liquor store, who helped take care of Onyango in her last weeks. He arranged her wake and held a fundraiser afterward to collect more money to send her body to Kenya. On a recent afternoon, as he disposed of a stray bottle in the liquor store parking lot, he declined to comment about his contact with the president, saying only “you don’t know more about my family than I do.”
Another of the president’s uncles, Said Obama, said in an interview from Kenya that he did not resent the president for staying away. “He can choose to get along with those people who he feels comfortable with,” he said.
The people the president feels at home with include Maya Soetoro-Ng, who is the daughter of his mother and her second husband, an Indonesian man. He is considerably less close to another half-sibling with a foot in that part of the world.
Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo took a path that most parallels the president’s own. Ndesandjo, another Ivy League-educated son of a white American woman, is a China-based pianist, writer and businessman who has an Obama-branded cultural foundation and is publicizing a memoir, “Cultures: My Odyssey of Self-Discovery,” which unflatteringly depicts his late father and explores a rocky relationship with the president.
Visiting Nairobi at Christmas, Ndesandjo said by phone that he and the other African Obamas had not heard from the president for some time. “Barack is almost trying to leave behind the family that he so passionately engaged in those early years as he moves through the presidency,” Ndesandjo said.
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Afterward, Ndesandjo followed up with an email: “Just a small point, but when I said it would be nice for Barack to call Kenya once in a while, I was specifically referring to Granny Sarah. He hasn’t done so for a number of years now and she is the oldest member of our family and may leave us any day. Perhaps your article can note that.”
Granny Sarah, or Sarah Ogwel Onyango, is the president’s step-grandmother, and is considered the matriarch of the Obama family. On a recent morning in Kenya, she sat in a bright orange dress and blue head scarf on the veranda of the Obama homestead. Recovering from a bout of malaria and rubbing the left knee that she blamed for keeping her from attending Obama’s second inauguration, she said in the Luo dialect that language barriers impeded communication between her and the president.
But at the end of March, she said, Auma Obama, the president’s half-sister, called with a birthday wish from Obama. The president and his step-grandmother also spoke through a translator this year when he called to wish her a happy New Year. She then gestured around the homestead and attributed the electricity, paved roads and running drinking water to Obama.
“He is still very central to my life today,” she said.