Thursday, October 30, 2008

Family Values: Barack Obama’s 'Auntie Zeituni' Found in a Rundown Boston Estate

“I can’t talk about it... After the 4th, I can talk to anyone.”

From the Times Online
James Bone in Boston, Rob Crilly in Kogelo and Ben Macintyre
October 30, 2008
Found in a rundown Boston estate: Barack Obama’s aunt Zeituni Onyango
'Auntie Zeituni', who, with Uncle Omar, dropped out of sight after moving to the US, is backing the presidential candidate from her modest flat.

Barack Obama has lived one version of the American Dream that has taken him to the steps of the White House. But a few miles from where the Democratic presidential candidate studied at Harvard, his Kenyan aunt and uncle, immigrants living in modest circumstances in Boston, have a contrasting American story.

Zeituni Onyango, the aunt so affectionately described in Mr Obama’s best-selling memoir Dreams from My Father, lives in a disabled-access flat on a rundown public housing estate in South Boston.

A second relative believed to be the long-lost “Uncle Omar” described in the book was beaten by armed robbers with a “sawed-off rifle” while working in a corner shop in the Dorchester area of the city. He was later evicted from his one-bedroom flat for failing to pay $2,324.20 (£1,488) arrears, according to the Boston Housing Court.

The US press has repeatedly rehearsed Mr Obama’s extraordinary odyssey, but the other side of the family’s American experience has only been revealed in parts. Just across town from where Mr Obama made history as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, some of his closest blood relatives have confronted the harshness of immigrant life in America.

In his book Mr Obama writes that “Uncle Omar” had gone missing after moving to Boston in the 1960s – a quarter-century before Mr Obama first visited his family in Kenya. Aunt Zeituni is now also living in Boston, and recently made a $260 campaign contribution to her nephew's presidential bid from a work address in the city.

Speaking outside her home in Flaherty Way, South Boston, on Tuesday, Ms Onyango, 56, confirmed she was the “Auntie Zeituni” in Mr Obama’s memoir. She declined to answer most other questions about her relationship with the presidential contender until after the November 4 election. “I can’t talk about it, I just pray for him, that’s all,” she said, adding: “After the 4th, I can talk to anyone.”

A photograph of Ms Onyango was later shown to George Hussein Onyango, Barack Obama’s half-brother in Nairobi, who confirmed that it was their aunt. George Onyango, 26, the youngest child of Barack Obama Sr, said that he had spent weekends with his Aunt Zeituni when he was growing up, and instantly recognised her.

George Onyango said that his aunt had left for the US about eight years ago but sent him e-mails. “She left to find work and I suppose she thought her life would be better there,” he said. “She was kind and caring.”

In his memoir Mr Obama describes the joy of meeting his father’s family during his first visit to Kenya in 1988. Aunt Zeituni, then a computer programmer at Kenya Breweries in Nairobi, is portrayed as a feisty woman who proclaims herself “the champion dancer”. Uncle Omar, by contrast, remains a mysterious figure who left for America and never came back. At one point in the book a half-sister tells Mr Obama that people “like our Uncle Omar, in Boston” move to the West.

“They promise to return after completing school. They say they’ll send for the family once they get settled. At first they write once a week. Then it’s just a month. Then they stop writing completely. No one sees them again.”

Aunt Zeituni and Uncle Omar are the children of Mr Obama’s grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama, by his third wife – the woman Mr Obama calls “Granny” because she raised his father. Mr Obama’s father, Barack Sr, was Onyango Obama’s son by his second wife, Akumu. That makes Zeituni and Omar a half-sister and half-brother of Mr Obama’s father, or Mr Obama’s half-aunt and half-uncle.

While Mr Obama was on his voyage of personal discovery in Africa, his aunt and uncle were engaged in their own journey in his homeland.

The Times could not determine their immigration status and an official at Boston City Hall said that Ms Onyango was a resident of Flaherty Way but not registered to vote on the electoral roll. However, that Ms Onyango made a contribution to the Obama campaign would indicate that she is a US citizen. Records at the Boston City Hall confirmed Zeituni Onyango’s birthdate as May 29, 1952.

It is not clear when Ms Onyango first came to the US. She said: “I have been coming to America ever since 1975. I always come and go.”

She is a frail woman who walks with the aid of a metal stick. Neighbours said that she lived alone in a ground-floor flat normally set aside for people facing physical hardship.

An Associated Press story about poor people buying lottery tickets at cheque-cashing shops, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 25, 2003, quotes a Zeituni Onyango whom it describes as out of work and without much money. “It's like when I feel luck might fall I do that, like manna might come from Heaven. That’s when I buy it,” she told AP.

A staff member at the Boston Housing Authority office, 50 yards from her house, said Ms Onynango had been a volunteer resident health advocate between December 2007 and August this year. She worked six hours a week for a small stipend. Records show she used the housing authority’s address to make her campaign contribution.

Ms Onyango is also listed on the internet as a volunteer with Experience Corps, a programme in which adults over 55 mentor children in their communities. The “former computer systems co-ordinator” tells the group’s online newsletter: “I felt that I should help the children in my community. I love people and enjoy interacting with them . . . Also, I was idle, and this was a chance to get involved.”

A public record search lists an “O. Onyango Obama”, born on June 3, 1944, at 24 Colgate Road whose name matches that of the “Uncle Omar” in Dreams from My Father.

Nelson Ochieng, a cousin of Mr Obama who lives in the Kenyan city of Kisumu, near the family village of Kogelo, said that Omar had changed his first name after moving to the US. “Before he went to America we all knew him as Omar, but he dropped that bit, changing it to Obama Onyango, because he said he preferred his African name,” he said. Gail Greenberger, the landlady who bought the four-storey brick block of flats at a foreclosure sale in 1994, knew her tenant, however, by the name Obama Onyango. “We used to call him ‘Oh-bummer!’. That is how I pronounced Obama in 2000,” she said.

Ms Greenberger said she inherited him with the building but was forced to evict him in 2000 for nonpayment of his rent of about $500 a month. “I remember him being decent but I think he lost his job. When they lose their job, they just stop paying rent. He did not even go to court. He bolted from the apartment,” she said. Records of Boston Housing Court show a “summary process” was executed against Mr Onyango on February 23, 2000, for unpaid rent of $2,324.70.

Mr Onyango was a business partner in a “convenience store” called the Wells Market at 1760 Dorchester Avenue, now a Hispanic bodega, or grocery. Records list him as the treasurer of the corporation, which was set up without his name in 1992 and involuntarily wound up in 2007 after failing to file annual reports since 1997.

In 1994 Obama Onyango was attacked in an armed robbery at the Wells Market, the Boston Herald reported. According to a police report, two masked black males entered the store around 9.30pm on June 7, 1994, and “did assault and beat the victim, and did rob victim of an undetermined amount of US currency. Suspects were believed to be armed with a ‘sawed-off’ rifle, and did flee the area on foot .”

Asked why the man believed to be “Uncle Omar” went by the name Obama Onyango, Zeituni Onyango said that Obama was his true name. “That is the name his father gave him,” she said. Dershaye Geresu, the Ethiopian-born president of Wells Market Inc, confirmed that Mr Onyango was a “cousin” of Mr Obama.

Lennard Tenende, whose wife Lucy was secretary to the shop, said: “I don’t know where he is. It seems as if he is getting a lot of inquiries, a lot of people trying to find him and find out about his relationship with Obama and he just doesn’t want to be found.” Mr Ochieng said that he believed Mr Onyango ran a chain of stores.

The Obama campaign was repeatedly approached for comment yesterday but had not responded at the time of going to press. It is not clear whether Mr Obama has been in touch with his African relatives living in the US, or even whether he is aware that they are on US soil.

In the preface to the 2004 reissue, he writes: “Most of the characters in this book remain a part of my life, albeit in varying degrees – a function of work, children, geography, and turns of fate.”

“What is family?” he reflects. “Is it just a genetic chain, parents and offspring, people like me?” Twenty years after he first met Aunt Zeituni, and first heard of the elusive Uncle Omar, the man likely to be the next president will have the opportunity for another family reunion, rather closer to home.

How Barack Obama tells of his first meeting with his aunt
‘‘Barack!” I turned to see Auma [his Kenyan cousin] jumping up and down behind another guard who wasn’t letting her pass into the luggage area. I excused myself and rushed over to her, as we laughed and hugged as silly as the first time we’d met. A tall, brown-skinned woman was smiling beside us, and Auma turned and said: “Barack, this is our Auntie Zeituni. Our father’s sister.”
“Welcome home,” Zeituni said kissing me on both cheeks . . .
We went to drop Zeituni off at Kenya Breweries, a large, drab complex where she worked as a computer programmer. Stepping out of the car, she leaned over again to kiss me on the cheek, then wagged her finger at Auma. “You take good care of Barry now,” she said. “Make sure he doesn’t get lost again.”
Once we were back on the highway, I asked Auma what Zeituni had meant about my getting lost. Auma shrugged.
“It’s a common expression,” she said. “Usually it means that the person hasn’t seen you in a while. ‘You’ve been lost,’ they’ll say. Or, ‘Don’t get lost’. Sometimes it has a more serious meaning. Let’s say a husband or son moves to the city, or to the West, like our Uncle Omar in Boston. They promise to return after completing school. They say they’ll send for the family once they get settled. At first they write once a week. Then it’s just once a month. Then they stop writing completely. No one sees them again. They’ve been lost, you see. Even if people know where they are.”
Extracted from Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama, pp305-307 (Canongate)

Related Links
The search for Obama's missing relations
Grandmother roots for Obama 8,000 miles away
I like my Nairobi slum, says Obama's brother
BLOG: forget policy, it's all in the grooming

1 comment:

  1. It is without a doubt a great article, well defined on its informative tone. However just a very personal comment on it; Mr. Obama's father was an immigrant himself, and it is understood that no everyone in a family, whether immigrant, or traditional American has the same need for success, nor the desire, or inspirations. It is not always easy to see the obstacles, and seeing others tripping on it, neither it is easy to see lax people blocking your pathway when your hyperactive trying to achieve goals. The fact that Mr. Obama wants become a president today, does not make him especial-nor above any other citizen who wish to be known. It is admirable that he has gone this far, as he has, but we should not let that fact blinds us. We should see and concentrate our energy on his qualifications as to what can he do for the country that, no other president has ever done, it is true that changes are needed, but he will be just another president who will have to work along with the Congress and anyone else involved in running the Government. lets not forget the check and balance principles on which this country was created. He can promise anything, it does not means that it will happen, we have seen it in the past, I think that we should be able to see the future. I do feel that the people here is long dued for additional education-as I think that not everyone in the country is ready to have African American descendant for president. There are too many divisions in our way of thinking, and everyone wants to present their own agenda, not realizing that whatever wrong one president may do, will go on to the next-and we all have to pay the tab-Every Elections is the same. They all tell us what was done wrong yesterday, and what is wrong today, but they will not tell us however that the same will be wrong tomorrow unless they actually do someting to find the remedy. Perhaps the question should be, how do we make them respossibles, and how can we benefit from it-as if we do not work and educate our selves the changes will be even slower, or may not even happen. We should support our Government, but not depend on them for individual changes, as it is how the big changes occur, I might be wrong, but this is how I have seen it, year after year and Election after Election. My apologies ahead of time, just in case if I have offended anyone, it was not my intention, thank you have a wonderful day. Vote.