How a Kenyan airlift that brought a young scholar named Obama to America in 1960 – where he met a wife and fathered a son – was saved by a young senator from Massachusetts
In his command of the US political stage over the past year, Barack Obama has inspired many a comparison to John F Kennedy. Both young senators brought a lofty message, an appealing young family and a movie-star aura to the presidential race. But the two men forged a less known link – before Obama was even born.
The bond began with Kenyan labour leader Tom Mboya, an advocate for African nationalism who helped his country gain independence in 1963. In the late 1950s, Mboya was seeking support for a scholarship program that would send Kenyan students to US colleges – similar to other exchanges the US backed in developing nations during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Mboya appealed to the state department. When that trail went cold, he turned to then-senator Kennedy.
Kennedy, who chaired the senate subcommittee on Africa, arranged a $100,000 grant through his family’s foundation to help Mboya keep the program running.
“It was not a matter in which we sought to be involved,” Kennedy said in an August 1960 senate speech. “Nevertheless, Mr Mboya came to see us and asked for help, when none of the other foundations could give it, when the federal government had turned it down quite precisely. We felt something ought to be done.”
One of the first students airlifted to America was Barack Obama Sr, who married a white Kansas native named Ann Dunham during his US studies. Their son, born in 1961 and named for his father, has only once mentioned his Kennedy connection on the campaign trail.
“[T]he Kennedys decided: ‘We’re going to do an airlift,'” senator Obama said during a March speech in Selma, Alabama. “We’re going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is. This young man named Barack Obama [Sr] got one of those tickets and came over to this country.”
Many of the airlifted students worked their way up to elite universities in America before returning to help Kenya adjust to independence, and Obama Sr was no exception. He left the family to take a Harvard scholarship when the young Obama was only 2 years old, beginning the future presidential candidate’s remarkable personal journey to Indonesia, New York and Chicago and Capitol Hill.
“Obama is hailed in Kenya as one of the great results of the airlift,” said Cora Weiss, who led the US group that helped Mboya organise the airlift. At a recent reception for alumni of the program, she recalled, one Kenyan journalist made a rousing toast to the student exchange that produced “the next president of the United States”. Thanks to a bizarre twist in the airlift saga, Kennedy ended up discussing his Obama connection much more openly than Obama mentions the late president’s role in his life.
The bitterly fought presidential campaign of 1960 pitted Kennedy against Richard Nixon, then the vice president, who tried to steal his opponent’s thunder by winning state department money for the airlift before the Kennedy family’s grant could go through. A thoroughly modern political scuffle erupted over who would claim credit for supporting Obama’s father and the other Kenyan students. Kennedy ultimately prevailed.
Joel Barkan, an Africa scholar at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Kennedy’s gift to Kenya helped forge a relationship with America that has remained strong for decades.
“There’s no other African country where there is such admiration for the US … There has always been a disproportionate number of Kenyan students in America to study. Their children come here, their grandchildren come here,” Barkan said.
Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel peace prize, also studied in America thanks to the airlift.
Obama has made his own offering to Kenya in recent days, as a tide of violence unleashed by disputed election results threatens to topple one of Africa’s most stable governments. In the midst of his grinding campaign schedule, the Illinois senator taped a radio message urging an end to the fighting and reached out personally to opposition leader Raila Odinga and Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki.
Strangely, the same weight of political dynasty that Obama is seeking to lift in America – putting a name other than Bush or Clinton in the White House – links the senator to both sides in the current Kenyan struggle.
Odinga stood beside Obama during stops on the latter’s Kenyan homecoming in 2006, and the Kenyan presidential hopeful claimed on Tuesday to be a cousin of the US candidate. Odinga is also tied to airlift organiser Mboya, who was a political rival of his father during the 1960s.
All of the men belong to the Kenyan Luo tribe, which takes a particular pride in senator Obama’s astounding rise in America. But the jubilation at the Obama victory in Iowa has been matched by anger at president Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu tribe. The election was called for Kibaki on December 27 despite strong evidence on the ground of an Odinga win, prodding both sides to bloody clashes and riots that have killed as many as 1000 people, according to opposition estimates.
“Before the Kenya elections occurred … there was a popular question circulating among Kenyan intellectuals: ‘Which country will be first to have a Luo president, Kenya or the United States?'” wrote Dr Ali Mazrui, a Kenyan academic who directs the global studies program at Binghamton university in New York.
“The question was only half in jest,” Mazrui added. “Raila Odinga supporters are now convinced Kenya would have been the first, but for the electoral fraud by Kibaki supporters.”
Meanwhile, Kibaki has asserted his own tie to the White House race: he recalls working with the elder Obama in the Kenyan planning ministry in the 1970s, after the senator’s father returned home following the airlift.
While a spokesman for the Obama campaign declined to comment further on Kennedy’s role in the airlift, the senator discussed the instability in Kenya with reporters in New Hampshire on primary day.
“[I]t’s important to me, obviously, because my father was from there, and I still have family that lives there,” Obama said, according to the pool transcript. “I think it’s important to the United States as well, though. Kenya is, has been a stable democratic government in a region that, uh, you know could end up being a base for, you know, terrorist activity, for ethnic violence that results in refugees. It could be very destabilising if the violence there is not contained.”
Weiss, the airlift organiser who now leads the Hague Appeal for Peace campaign, has begun researching how many members of the newly elected Kenyan parliament are alumni of the exchange program.
“Airlift students became the nation builders of the new Kenya and a handful of other countries in Africa,” Weiss said, adding: “It was all because of Tom Mboya’s vision. If it helped to produce the next president of the US, hooray.”