Ruth tried half-heartedly to turn him away. But Obama charmed her with an onslaught of entreaties. He loved her to the core of his being. He adored their son and had yearned for them every day they had been gone. If she would only return with him, he vowed that everything would be different.
He would never pursue another woman again. He would not even look at another woman, he insisted.
What’s more, he had already lined up a new job. Starting in October Obama was to be the senior development officer for the newly created Kenya Tourist Development Corporation (KTDC), a high-profile government corporation charged with overseeing the blossoming industry and directing public investment in a spate of new hotels and parks. As the second highest-ranking employee in the organisation, Obama was to receive a handsome annual salary of 2,275 pounds.
It was a plum job that put Obama squarely in the league of the government’s other ranking economists and at the forefront of an industry to which Mzee, the Swahili term of respect for an elder, Kenyatta himself was closely attuned.
It was not a permanent secretary’s post like Philip Ndegwa had landed or even the top job at the KTDC, but it was a good job nonetheless. And it gave him a much-needed chance to rehabilitate himself. Adding to Obama’s bounty, the job came with a lovely home in the exclusive Woodley Estate west of the city’s center, a neighbourhood that the Nairobi City Council developed expressly for Europeans in the late 1940s.
Since independence, however, a handful of prominent Africans, including members of Parliament and government ministers, had trickled into the handsome homes flanked by high green hedges.
Obama’s house was a welcoming stone bungalow with a red tile roof, complete with a separate servants’ quarters that could accommodate the trail of relatives that invariably followed him. Ruth soon abandoned her plan of staying in the United States and agreed to return with him to Nairobi.
But it wasn’t because of Obama’s promises of fidelity or even the goodies he dangled before her. “There was a connection between us, a passion, the type of love that holds a man and a woman together,” said Ruth.
“He loved me in a certain way, as much as he was able. It wasn’t just because I was white because surely that wears off. For myself, he was a man I had a very strong passion for.
I did not have that passion again in my life.” Once they were back in Nairobi, Obama’s promises lasted only as long as it took Ruth to unpack her bags. No sooner had the couple settled into their new home than Obama resumed his carousing ways, leaving Ruth to juggle her secretarial job at Nestlé and caring for his extended family with only the help of a housekeeper.
There were now three of his children living in the house along with a succession of visiting relatives.
Roy, his eldest son, who would later be known as Malik, attended the prestigious Lenana School, once exclusively for whites. Rita, later known as Auma, attended a day school before eventually enrolling in the Kenya High School.
Although Kezia regularly visited her children, bearing sweets and small gifts in the early years after they moved in with their father and his new wife, Kezia’s tearful demeanour annoyed Obama, so he had her visits abruptly stopped. Auma would not see her birth mother for nearly seven years.
There were also the young relatives who lived in the servant quarters out back. Not long after he returned from the United States, Obama had taken his first cousin Ezra under his wing.
Ezra was a clever and amusing boy whose father, one of Hussein Onyango’s brothers, was unable to pay for his son’s schooling. So Ezra moved into the squat servants’ quarters in 1967 and remained there for four years while Obama paid for his education.
He was not alone. When Wilson Obama, another cousin, showed up in similar need, Obama agreed to pay for his education and offered him a place to stay for close to two years. Amir Otieno Orinda, Obama’s half-brother with whom he shared the same mother, was in and out of the house as well.
Zeituni Onyango, Obama’s half-sister, stayed at the house for several weeks in the late 1960s and would later help to take care of Malik and Auma. As those and other Obamas came and went from the busy household, Ruth sometimes found herself passing people in the hallway who, she says, “I hadn’t the slightest idea who they were.”
Obama, meanwhile, had once again become a habitué of the city’s nightspots and would migrate from one elegant hotel barroom to the next.
Buoyed by his new post and the keen interest others took in his command of econometrics, Double-Double now had mingi—Swahili for “many”— drinking companions.
Flush with their new salaries and Harambee Avenue offices, a certain element of the new African elite cultivated a lifestyle richly steeped in alcohol. One of their favorite places was the bar at the newly opened InterContinental, called The Big Five in reference to the five most difficult and dangerous animals to hunt in Africa’s far-flung game parks.
The intimate retreat offered an eclectic mix.
Patrons lounging on the plush leather stools could as likely rub shoulders with a dewy-eyed tourist from New Jersey, a minister who had just strolled out of the nearby Treasury building, or a World Bank project manager making notations on his napkin, all under the glassy-eyed gaze of the lion and gazelle mounted on the walls.
It also drew from the senior ranks of the civil service and the top echelon of the business community. Some of the regulars among the African elite were Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s current president and then Minister of Commerce and Industry, and Francis Masakhalia, Obama’s old Maseno School friend and by then an economist/statistician with the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development headed by Tom Mboya. Members of the nearby Parliament and a host of Treasury officers were often a part of the mix. When Obama tired of his double shots there, he often headed to the Panafric Hotel for a chaser or two of Chivas or Martel cognac.
To wrap up the evening he occasionally stopped at the Starlight Club for a spin around the dance floor before heading home to Woodley in the early hours of the morning.
By the time he got there Obama was often stumbling and barely coherent. If Ruth or one of the children made the mistake of locking up before they went to bed, Obama would hammer loudly on the door and angrily demand that someone let him in. Gladys Ogolah, the next-door neighbour who knew Obama from their days at Central Bank together, heard every word of it.
“He would shout at Ruth, ‘Open the door, woman. Open the door,’” Ogolah recalled. “He would say, ‘Why are you sleeping when I am not back at home. Open the door now.’ And then he would beat on the door, boom, boom, boom.”
Ogolah was hardly the only Woodley resident keenly aware of their baritone-voiced neighbour. Even when Obama was sober, his thundering voice wafted over the hedges and shattered the neighbourhood calm.
Sometimes, he was just calling to his children without making any effort to keep his voice down. But on the nights when he and Ruth got into an argument, his domineering voice could be heard the length of the Loddon Grove road and sometimes beyond.
Not long after they moved into the house, the Obamas had become a regular topic of neighborhood talk, little of it good. “Barack would come back from work or wherever he was in the middle of the night and they would fight very loudly,” recalled Ndolo Ayah, who lived nearby. “Everybody knew about it.
I think we all worried a bit about Ruth’s safety. Barack was not a violent person, but he could be very violent in his language.”
Gladys Ogolah and her husband, Boaz, got to know the Obamas well and not just because of the couple’s ongoing fighting. Boaz Ogolah was also an economist who worked in the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development, and Obama respected his breadth of knowledge and experience.Sometimes Obama would drop in for a drink, and the two men would critique the other economists in government service whose academic credentials they considered inferior to their own.
Obama would also talk openly of some of the beautiful women to whom he was attracted.
“Barack was a Luo and a polygamist, and so this was no big deal to him,” said Ogolah. “He was very open about it.”
Just a few years younger than her neighbour, Gladys Ogolah grew to like her new American friend.
Ruth clearly enjoyed Kenya and appreciated many of its customs. Unlike some mzungu who tended to stick with their own, Ruth counted African women among her closest friends. She was also devoted to all of Obama’s children and even some of his closer cousins. She was the one who arranged their weekend outings swimming at the Panafric and Safari Park hotels or picnics in the countryside. And she was the one who drove them to their schools and doctors’ appointments and, at times, shielded them from their father.
“Ruth was a very great woman,” said Ezra Obama, sixty-one and a retired manager of market development for Coca-Cola living outside Nairobi. “She treated all of us children the same and I respected her very much.”
But no matter how much Ruth tried to make things run smoothly, Obama seemed always to have a complaint. And when his shouting developed into more aggressive behavior in the passing months, it was to Ogolah that Ruth often turned, running through the darkness to the safe haven of her neighbor’s kitchen. “Sometimes, when he came home late he would order her to cook for him in the middle of the night and if she would not he would hit her about the shoulders and neck,” recalled Gladys Ogolah.
“Ruth would run screaming down the road to our house crying. She was tired of being hit and tired of being called names. She had a very, very rough time and I was always worried about her.”
As a boy, Mark Ndesandjo was fearful of his towering father and tried hard to stay out of his way so he would not inadvertently trigger his rage.
“What I felt from him was coldness. There was fear. That is what I recall,” Ndesandjo said in an interview.
“I was physically afraid of him. He was a large looming man and you did not know what to expect. Is he going to hit you or your mother or other people in your family? He did not smile except when he was drinking or when he was with friends.”
Anxious as to what their father’s condition would be on his return home each night, the children passed the afternoon following school with mounting apprehension.
“Everyone in the house was totally on edge because you never knew when my father would be back,” Ndesandjo said in an interview.
“When he got there he would probably be drunk.
And then the light would go on and you would hear thuds and shouts and my mother’s voice rising and crying and screaming.
You would hear sounds like falling objects and it would go on and on and on and on. I instinctively bonded with my mother because she was afraid and she was also very protective of me. And that made my father even angrier.
He resented me because we were both now competing for my mother’s attention. I was my mother’s firstborn and she had shifted some of her attention away from him to me. Sometimes when she was holding me, he would shout at her, ‘Stop tending to that brat.’”
Nor was Obama’s abuse of Ruth confined to their home. As he became increasingly careless about shielding his attraction to other women, Obama repeatedly humiliated his wife in public.
“He would criticise me and flirt with other women right in front of me. Always, there were other women,” Ruth sighed.
“He took great pleasure in demeaning me because it made him feel better.” Ruth endured for two reasons.
The first was Mark Okoth, and the second would be named David Opiyo.
Within a few months of their return to Nairobi, Ruth learned that she was pregnant again and thus linked ever more inextricably to her husband.
Obama had made it clear to her that if she ever left him, he would prohibit her from seeing their children, and in Kenya’s patriarchal culture she had little doubt that he could do so easily.
Determined to raise her children as best she could while struggling to preserve the marriage that had produced them, Ruth took stock of her situation. Her job at Nestlé continued to provide both a professional outlet and much-needed emotional support.
Best of all, it gave her a source of self esteem that she was not finding at home. She also had an extensive network of friends, some of whom strongly urged her to take the children and flee under cover of night.
But Obama had never struck any of the children.
As long as it was only she upon whom he inflicted his rage, she felt she could manage. But it wasn’t easy.
One night Obama came home drunk as usual, but this time he had a pretty young woman clinging to his arm. It was not the first time he had done so. In the past Ruth had simply turned tearfully away as Obama and his woman friend slipped into one of the bedrooms together.
But on this particular night Obama insisted that Ruth leave their house so that he could use their marriage bed without her interfering. He was, after all, a Luo and had a right to any woman he might desire, he declared, his voice growing steadily louder.
But this time Ruth put her foot down. She refused to move anywhere, and as she screamed out her hurt, the neighbours, as ever, got an earful.
One of those neighbours was Achieng Oneko, one of the Kapenguria Six who were convicted in 1952 of supporting the Mau Mau rebels along with Kenyatta and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Oneko, who had abandoned his old cellmate to join Odinga and the Kenya People’s Union, was a legendary freedom fighter and a pioneering newspaper editor.
He was also a former Maseno student, although he attended many years before Obama.
Upset by the Obamas’ domestic furor, Oneko picked up the telephone and called his friend Ndolo Ayah. “He said, ‘You young people, you better talk to that friend of yours, Barack. He’s making a mess of himself,’” Ayah recounted. “So I got another friend of mine and we headed on over to Obama’s place to see what we could do.”
The situation was chaotic. Ruth was screaming so forcefully that it took her awhile to realise that there were visitors in the house. Obama was drunkenly explaining to her that, according to Luo tradition, “he could bring any woman into the house at any time.” said Ayah.
“I said, well, he comes from a different Luo group than ourselves because we are Luo and you don’t do this kind of thing. We tried to get Barack to come to Oneko’s place so we could talk it out but he just told us to go to hell, you know. And so we left. I suppose at some level we felt it was none of our business.”
As his marriage with Ruth grew increasingly strained, Obama turned to his first wife, Kezia, for solace—at least that is what she maintains. While working as a waitress in a Mombasa restaurant in the late 1960s, Kezia says that Obama occasionally visited her when he passed through town on business.
As Ruth understood him, Obama’s reckless behaviours stemmed from a couple of sources.
The first were the rich and varied temptations of Nairobi life in the years after independence. Although Obama had managed to curb his more extreme inclinations while under scrutiny in the United States, once he returned to Kenya in the heady days of the mid-1960s, it was another story. On a scholarship in America, she noted, “he was being judged on a daily basis. He had to behave properly. There were parameters. But once he was back in Kenya and all his friends are saying,
‘Let’s go for the drink, let’s go dancing, let’s go find some women, let’s do this and that,’ he couldn’t hold back. All those pressures were too much for him. He just didn’t have the strength of character to resist.
And the more he succumbed, the more he succumbed.”
But Ruth believes the greater source of Obama’s undoing lay deeply embedded in his gnawing lack of faith in himself, exacerbated by the perils of Kenyan politics. Kenyatta’s chokehold on matters of state meant that little could happen without his sanction or that of members of his inner circle.
Obama had already been blackballed for his aggressive critique of Sessional Paper No. 10, and his critical commentary at Central Bank hadn’t helped matters. Much as he yearned to be a Big Man, Obama was far from it.
That his fortunes were dependent on favours from others and the shifting sands of Kenya’s powerful elites made matters only worse. Indeed, since his collision with Harvard administrators, he had found the doors to power closed to him at almost every turn.
Uncertainty, coupled with the Luo habit of self-inflation, drove him to chronic exaggeration intended to compensate for his perceived shortcomings. Although Obama had abundant company in his heavy drinking, he was driven by more than the cultural excesses of the moment. Also contributing to his dark mood was the evolving cast of Kenyatta’s inner circle, ever more authoritarian and intolerant of challenge. By the end of 1967 the mushrooming political schism between Kenyatta and the radicals led by Oginga Odinga had distinctly worsened.
Between 1966 and 1969 Kenyatta moved to stymie the opposition and isolate his Luo challengers.
With Odinga now effectively marginalised, Kenyatta’s Kikuyu coterie began to look increasingly askance at Tom Mboya, who now stood as the likely heir apparent. Mboya was not only immensely popular among a broad swath of trade union members and members of parliament but was also believed to have the critical support of the Western countries, particularly the United States.
As the aging Kenyatta’s health began to deteriorate, many Kikuyus were increasingly alarmed at the possibility of the presidency falling to a non-Kikuyu. Rumours about Mboya’s political intentions were rampant. That he was interested in the presidency was no secret. Some whispered that he was forging a secret alliance with Odinga to assume a spot within the KPU.
Others suspected a more devious agenda.
Either way, the hostility of Kenyatta’s inner circle toward Mboya escalated rapidly.
Unlike many who threw their lot with either one of the two Luo giants, Odinga or Mboya, Obama retained ties with both political camps, as he was drawn to aspects of each of their platforms. As he had expressed so forcefully in his critique of Sessional Paper No. 10, Obama believed that certain socialist principles that Odinga articulated should be a feature of the country’s economic underpinnings.
But he also saw a place for the capitalist principles that the West-leaning Mboya espoused. He was particularly incensed at the factions within KANU that were seeking to undermine Mboya, their own party’s secretary-general.
Mboya’s exalted cyle
Although removed from Mboya’s exalted circle, Obama continued to look to Mboya for guidance. Their relationship had grown more distant over the years as Mboya’s star rose ever higher, but they nonetheless maintained a friendship throughout. Mboya’s increasing political isolation gave Obama one more reason for dismay.
Like others disillusioned with the government’s performance, Obama regarded Kenyatta as a bitter disappointment. In the months after he returned with Ruth, it seemed that much of what he had long dreamed for his country had failed to materialize.
Far from standing as a boldly independent African nation, dependence on foreign capital still hobbled Kenya.
At the same time, its domestic assets were being amassed in the hands of a privileged few.
Obama was an economist who believed that free enterprise played a critical role in a democracy, but he also had a deep respect for African communalism. He felt strongly that the majority should share in the country’s bounty. Instead, he saw unfettered capitalism and, increasingly, a rampant tribalism eroding the promises of uhuru.
Although Obama clearly had difficulty with authority of any kind, he was hardly alone in believing that his own Luo roots were coming to be a distinct liability. As he grew increasingly frustrated with the Kikuyus’ tight grip on the country’s politics, he began to drink ever more heavily.
His frustration with the country’s course coupled with his own personal failure to attain the heights that he believed should have been within easy reach were fast congealing into an acid stew of resentment.
To be continued tomorrow