There was nothing in his background to suggest that he would be a candidate for the Oval Office. First, the arrival of his Kansas-born mother, Ann Dunham, was greeted with apathy as Stanley Dunham, her father, craved for a male child. And against the prevailing bias against coloured people, Ann, a Caucasian, fell in love with a certain Kenyan student named Barack Obama during a chance meeting at the University of Hawaii. The result of the liaison and subsequent marriage manifested with the arrival of a baby boy named ‘Barack’, which means blessed in Arabic, on 4 August 1961. But the father soon went to study at Harvard and only came back once, when his boy was already 10 years old.
The young Barack unwittingly embarked on his first dalliance with international relations when he accompanied his mother to Indonesia to live with her on her second marriage to his stepfather, Lolo Soetero, an Indonesian. While in the Far East, Barack was exposed to the slings and arrows of acute poverty in the Third World country. He returned home to Hawaii after the break-up of his mother’s second marriage. But when his mother’s job as an anthropologist dictated that she must return to Indonesia, the young Obama, then known as Barry, opted to stay behind for high school education, under his maternal grandparents. After high school, Obama entered Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he started to use his birth name Barack in place of the Americanised Barry. At LA he took his first dive into politics, appearing as a speaker at an anti-apartheid rally.
With an appearance characterised by smart Afro hairstyle, those who should know say he never loved to dominate dormitory discussions about political issues at that time. “Whenever discussions came up on topical issues like the Soviet Union invasion of Kabul, he would allow everybody around to speak up,” intoned a close associate.
Soon he discovered that Occidental, though a Liberal College, was too small a pond for a potentially big fish like him. He moved to a bigger pond–Columbia University in New York–where he graduated with a Political Science degree. Just about then, tragedy struck. Obama received a call from an aunt notifying him of the death of his errant father in an auto crash in Mombasa, Kenya. The sad event, however, came to Obama as an opportunity for homecoming, as he visited the graveside of his deceased dad in tears.
From Colombia University, he moved to Chicago. Though he knew no one in the city, Obama was determined to start life anew. He embraced a low-paying job, which saw him motivating poor people to take part in the political process that traditionally excluded them. Armed with a city map, he navigated the streets driving his near rickety Honda.
The area of concentration was the South side of the city, made up of a cluster of neighbourhoods ravaged by the close of steel mills and factory jobs. While working for the Development Communities Project, he formed a working relationship with some black pastors. The group took it upon itself to mobilise people to agitate by way of lobbying for job training centre or cleaning up public housing. With time, some sceptics came on board. According to Lorreta Augustine-Herron, one of the project founders, “Obama looked so young and tender and the ladies soon dubbed him ‘Baby face Obama’. But he was very businesslike, very respectful. He had incredible people skills. He would keep us on task to move us along, to make things happen and if we would get distracted, he would shake his head and say, ‘come on guys. This is important’.”
Obama would later join the Trinity United Church of Christ and became friends with its leader, the firebrand Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose controversial comments almost marred Obama’s presidential campaign.
Writing about his early days, David Gardner recalled that Obama then took a giant leap from Chigago’s gritty south side to the heady atmosphere of Harvard Law School, the training ground for America’s elite. At Harvard, he made history as the first Black President of the Harvard Law Review, regarded as the most prestigious law journal in the US. After his first session at Harvard, he worked at a corporate law firm in Chicago where his adviser was Michelle Robinson, another Harvard law graduate and product of a working class family.
They later married and had two daughters, Malia, now 10, and Sasha, seven. Gardner noted that as Obama prepared to leave Harvard, job offers poured in. But he had other ideas. He returned to Chicago for a political career. He started out by embarking on a voter registration drive, a project which added tens and thousand to the roles. Obama began to clear out the path that would position him for public office.
In 1996, he was elected to the state Senate as a Democratic senator, where some lawmakers dismissed him as an Ivory Tower liberal. But Obama soon wormed his way into the hearts of many colleagues after delivering his signature speech at the 2004 party convention. He easily won his US Senate seat in a landslide. Soon after that, rumours began of a presidential run. But many dismissed such speculation for good reasons. Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady, with six years experience at the US Senate, backed with support from many party bigwigs, was the undisputed favourite to pick the Democratic presidential ticket.
But Obama changed all that. Armed with a massive $600million war chest that shattered all fund-raising records and establishing a huge data base of young grassroots supporters, he put together what has been described by the US media as staff known for discipline and lack of leaks. Soon after the celebrated endorsement from Oprah Winfrey, the Obama support train grew by leaps and bounds. Later, Paul Volcker, US Federal Reserve Chairman, joined the group alongside Caroline Kennedy, daughter of slain President John F. Kennedy, and others. By the time the list of celebrity endorsements was exhausted, Hillary Clinton was blown off. And last week, McCain, the Republican candidate, was kicked into touch.
But who really is Obama? In so many ways, the Obama phenomenon is captured in the words of Valerie Jarret, his close friend and adviser. “His improbable journey was unconventional from the start. His biography, white mother, African father and childhood are unlike that of any other presidential candidate. He has this unusual combination of life experiences that don’t fit into any stereotype. He has something in common with everyone,” he said.