I PULLED INTO THE AIRPORT parking lot at a quarter past three and ran to the terminal as fast as I could. Panting for breath, I spun around several times, my eyes scanning the crowds of Indians, Germans, Poles, Thais, and Czechs gathering their luggage.
Damn! I knew I should have left earlier. Maybe she had gotten worried and tried to call. Had I given her my office number? What if she’d missed her flight? What if she had walked right past me and I hadn’t even known it?
I looked down at the photograph in my hand, the one she had sent me two months earlier, smudged now from too much handling. Then I looked up, and the picture came to life: an African woman emerging from behind the customs gate, moving with easy, graceful steps, her bright, searching eyes now fixed on my own, her dark, round, sculpted face blossoming like a wood rose as she smiled. “Barack?”
I lifted my sister off the ground as we embraced, and we laughed and laughed as we looked at each other. I picked up her bag and we began to walk to the parking garage, and she slipped her arm through mine. And I knew at that moment, somehow, that I loved her, so naturally, so easily and fiercely, that later, after she was gone, I would find myself mistrusting that love, trying to explain it to myself. Even now I can’t explain it; I only know that the love was true, and still is, and I’m grateful for it.
“So, brother,” Auma said as we drove into the city, “you have to tell me everything.” “About what?”
“Your life, of course.”
“From the beginning?”
I told her about Chicago and New York, my work as an organizer, my mother and grandparents and Maya-she had heard so much about them from our father, she said, she felt as if she already knew them. She described Heidelberg, where she was trying to finish a master’s degree in linguistics, and the trials and tribulations of living in Germany.
“I have no right to complain, I suppose,” she said. “I have a scholarship, a flat. I don’t know what I would be doing if I was still in Kenya. Still, I don’t care for Germany so much. You know, the Germans like to think of themselves as very liberal when it comes to Africans, but if you scratch the surface you see they still have the attitudes of their childhood. In German fairy tales, black people are always the goblins. Such things one doesn’t forget so easily. Sometimes I try to imagine what it must have been like for the Old Man, leaving home for the first time. Whether he felt that same loneliness…”
The Old Man. That’s what Auma called our father. It sounded right to me, somehow, at once familiar and distant, an elemental force that isn’t fully understood. In my apartment, Auma held up the picture of him that sat on my bookshelf, a studio portrait that my mother had saved.
“He looks so innocent, doesn’t he? So young.” She held the picture next to my face. “You have the same mouth.”
I told her she should lie down and get some rest while I went to my office for a few hours of work. She shook her head. “I’m not tired. Let me go with you.”
“You’ll feel better if you take a nap.”
She said, “Agh, Barack! I see you’re bossy like the Old Man as well. And you only met him once? It must be in the blood.”
I laughed, but she didn’t; instead, her eyes wandered over my face as if it were a puzzle to solve, another piece to a problem that, beneath the exuberant chatter, nagged at her heart.
I gave her a tour of the South Side that afternoon, the same drive I had taken in my first days in
Chicago, only with some of my own memories now. When we stopped by my office, Angela, Mona, and Shirley happened to be there. They asked Auma all about Kenya and how she braided her hair and how come she talked so pretty, like the queen of England, and the four of them enjoyed themselves thoroughly talking about me and all my strange habits.
“They seem very fond of you,” Auma said afterward. “They remind me of our aunties back home.” She rolled down the window and stuck her face into the wind, watching Michigan Avenue pass by: the gutted remains of the old Roseland Theatre, a garage full of rusted cars. “Are you doing this for them, Barack?” she asked, turning back to me. “This organizing business, I mean?”
I shrugged. “For them. For me.”
That same expression of puzzlement, and fear, returned to Auma’s face. “I don’t like politics much,” she said.
“I don’t know. People always end up disappointed.”
There was a letter waiting for her in my mailbox when we got home; it was from a German law student she said she’d been seeing. The letter was voluminous, at least seven pages long, and as I prepared dinner, she sat at the kitchen table and laughed and sighed and clicked her tongue, her face suddenly soft and wistful.
“I thought you didn’t like Germans,” I said.
She rubbed her eyes and laughed. “Yah-Otto is different. He’s so sweet! And sometimes I treat him so badly! I don’t know, Barack. Sometimes I think it’s just impossible for me to trust anybody completely. I think of what the Old Man made of his life, and the idea of marriage gives me, how do you say…the shivers. Also, with Otto and his career, we would have to live in Germany, you see. I start imagining what it would be like for me, living my entire life as a foreigner, and I don’t think I could take it.”
She folded her letter and put it back in the envelope. “What about you, Barack?” she asked. “Do you have these problems, or is it just your sister who’s so confused?”
“I think I know what you’re feeling.” “Tell me.”
I went to the refrigerator and pulled out two green peppers, setting them on the cutting board. “Well…there was a woman in New York that I loved. She was white. She had dark hair, and specks of green in her eyes. Her voice sounded like a wind chime. We saw each other for almost a year. On the weekends, mostly. Sometimes in her apartment, sometimes in mine. You know how you can fall into your own private world? Just two people, hidden and warm. Your own language. Your own customs. That’s how it was.
“Anyway, one weekend she invited me to her family’s country house. The parents were there, and they were very nice, very gracious. It was autumn, beautiful, with woods all around us, and we paddled a canoe across this round, icy lake full of small gold leaves that collected along the shore. The family knew every inch of the land. They knew how the hills had formed, how the glacial drifts had created the lake, the names of the earliest white settlers-their ancestors-and before that, the names of the Indians who’d once hunted the land. The house was very old, her grandfather’s house. He had inherited it from his grandfather. The library was filled with old books and pictures of the grandfather with famous people he had knownpresidents, diplomats, industrialists. There was this tremendous gravity to the room. Standing in that room, I realized that our two worlds, my friend’s and mine, were as distant from each other as Kenya is from Germany. And I knew that if we stayed together I’d eventually live in hers. After all, I’d been doing it most of my life. Between the two of us, I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider.” “So what happened.”
I shrugged. “I pushed her away. We started to fight. We started thinking about the future, and it pressed in on our warm little world. One night I took her to see a new play by a black playwright. It was a very angry play, but very funny. Typical black American humor. The audience was mostly black, and everybody was laughing and clapping and hollering like they were in church. After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering-nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said-and she said that’s different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said that anger was just a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theater. When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough.”
“That’s a sad story, Barack.”
“I suppose. Maybe even if she’d been black it still wouldn’t have worked out. I mean, there are several black ladies out there who’ve broken my heart just as good.” I smiled and scraped the cut-up peppers into the pot, and then turned back to Auma. “The thing is,” I said, no longer smiling, “whenever I think back to what my friend said to me, that night outside the theater, it somehow makes me ashamed.” “Do you ever hear from her?”
“I got a postcard at Christmas. She’s happy now; she’s met someone. And I have my work.” “Is that enough?”
I took the next day off, and we spent the day together, visiting the Art Institute (I wanted to go see the shrunken heads at the Field Museum, but Auma refused), digging old photos out of my closet, visiting the supermarket, where Auma decided that Americans were friendly and overweight. She was stubborn sometimes, sometimes impish, sometimes burdened with the weight of the world, and always asserting a self-reliance that I recognized as a learned response-my own response to uncertainty.
We didn’t speak much about our father, though; it was as if our conversation stopped whenever we threatened to skirt his memory. It was only that night, after dinner and a long walk along the lake’s crumbling break wall, that we both sensed we couldn’t go any further until we opened up the subject. I made us some tea and Auma began to tell me about the Old Man, at least what she could remember.
“I can’t say I really knew him, Barack,” she began. “Maybe nobody did…not really. His life was so scattered. People only knew scraps and pieces, even his own children.
“I was scared of him. You know, he was already away when I was born. In Hawaii with your mum, and then at Harvard. When he came back to Kenya, our oldest brother, Roy, and I were small children. We had lived with our mum in the country, in Alego, up until then. I was too young to remember much about him coming. I was four, but Roy was six, so maybe he can tell you more about what happened. I just remember that he came back with an American woman named Ruth, and that he took us from our mother to go live with them in Nairobi. I remember that this woman, Ruth, was the first white person I’d ever been near, and that suddenly she was supposed to be my new mother.”
“Why didn’t you stay with your own mother?”
Auma shook her head. “I don’t know exactly. In Kenya, men get to keep children in a divorce-if they want them, that is. I asked my mum about this, but it’s difficult for her to talk about. She only says that the Old Man’s new wife refused to live with another wife, and that she-my mum-thought us children would be better off living with the Old Man because he was rich.
“In those first years, the Old Man was doing really well, you see. He was working for an American oil company-Shell, I think. It was only a few years after independence, and the Old Man was well connected with all the top government people. He had gone to school with many of them. The vice-president, ministers, they would all come to the house sometimes and drink with him and talk about politics. He had a big house and a big car, and everybody was impressed with him because he was so young but he already had so much education from abroad. And he had an American wife, which was still rare-although later, when he was still married to Ruth, he would go out sometimes with my real mum. As if he had to show people, you see. That he could also have this beautiful African woman whenever he chose. Our four other brothers were born at this time. Mark and David, they were Ruth’s children, born in our big house in Westlands. Abo and Bernard, they were my mum’s children, and lived with her and her family upcountry. Roy and I didn’t know Abo and Bernard then. They never came to the house to see us, and when the Old Man visited them, he would always go alone, without telling Ruth.
“I didn’t think about this much until later, the way our lives were divided in two, because I was so young. I think it was harder on Roy, because he was old enough to remember what it had been like in Alego, living in the village with our mum and our people. For me, things were okay. Ruth, our new mother, was nice enough to us then. She treated us almost like her own children. Her parents were rich, I think, and they would send us beautiful presents from the States. I’d get really excited whenever a package came from them. But I remember sometimes Roy would refuse to take their gifts, even when they sent us sweets. I remember once he refused some chocolates they had sent, but later in the night, when he thought I was asleep, I saw him taking some of the chocolates that I had left on our dresser. But I didn’t say anything, because I think I knew that he was unhappy.
“Then things began to change. When Ruth gave birth to Mark and David, her attention shifted to them. The Old Man, he left the American company to work in the government, for the Ministry of Tourism. He may have had political ambitions, and at first he was doing well in the government. But by 1966 or 1967, the divisions in Kenya had become more serious. President Kenyatta was from the largest tribe, the Kikuyus. The Luos, the second largest tribe, began to complain that Kikuyus were getting all the best jobs. The government was full of intrigue. The vice-president, Odinga, was a Luo, and he said the government was becoming corrupt. That, instead of serving those who had fought for independence, Kenyan politicians had taken the place of the white colonials, buying up businesses and land that should be redistributed to the people. Odinga tried to start his own party, but was placed under house arrest as a Communist. Another popular Luo minister, Tom M’boya, was killed by a Kikuyu gunman. Luos began to protest in the streets, and the government police cracked down. People were killed. All this created more suspicion between the tribes.
“Most of the Old Man’s friends just kept quiet and learned to live with the situation. But the Old Man began to speak up. He would tell people that tribalism was going to ruin the country and that unqualified men were taking the best jobs. His friends tried to warn him about saying such things in public, but he didn’t care. He always thought he knew what was best, you see. When he was passed up for a promotion, he complained loudly. ‘How can you be my senior,’ he would say to one of the ministers, ‘and yet I am teaching you how to do your job properly?’ Word got back to Kenyatta that the Old Man was a troublemaker, and he was called in to see the president. According to the stories, Kenyatta said to the Old Man that, because he could not keep his mouth shut, he would not work again until he had no shoes on his feet.
“I don’t know how much of these details are true. But I know that with the president as an enemy things became very bad for the Old Man. He was banished from the government-blacklisted. None of the ministries would give him work. When he went to foreign companies to look for a post, the companies were warned not to hire him. He began looking abroad and was hired to work for the African Development Bank in Addis Ababa, but before he could join them, the government revoked his passport, and he couldn’t even leave Kenya.
“Finally, he had to accept a small job with the Water Department. Even this was possible only because one of his friends pitied him. The job kept food on the table, but it was a big fall for him. The Old Man began to drink heavily, and many of the people he knew stopped coming to visit because now it was dangerous to be seen with him. They told him that maybe if he apologized, changed his attitude, he would be all right. But he refused and continued to say whatever was on his mind.
“I understood most of this only when I was older. At the time, I just saw that life at home became very difficult. The Old Man never spoke to Roy or myself except to scold us. He would come home very late, drunk, and I could hear him shouting at Ruth, telling her to cook him food. Ruth became very bitter at how the Old Man had changed. Sometimes, when he wasn’t home, she would tell Roy and myself that our father was crazy and that she pitied us for having such a father. I didn’t blame her for this-I probably agreed. But I noticed that, even more than before, she treated us differently from her own two sons. She would say that we were not her children and there was only so much she could do to help us. Roy and I began to feel like we had no one. And when Ruth left the Old Man, that feeling was not so far from the truth.“She left when I was twelve or thirteen, after the Old Man had had a serious car accident. He had been drinking, I think, and the driver of the other car, a white farmer, was killed. For a long time the Old Man was in the hospital, almost a year, and Roy and I lived basically on our own. When the Old Man finally got out of the hospital, that’s when he went to visit you and your mum in Hawaii. He told us that the two of you would be coming back with him and that then we would have a proper family. But you weren’t with him when he returned, and Roy and I were left to deal with him by ourselves.