Homeland

Barack Obama’s half brother, George, tells his own story of coming of age in a Kenyan slum.

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    Homeland:
    An Extraordinary Story of Hope and Survival
    By George Obama with Damien Lewis
    Simon & Schuster
    294 pp., $25
    View Caption

George Obama has, by choice, lived much of his 28 years in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. His older brother by 21 years is currently president of the United States.

Barack Obama has never lived in a Kenyan slum. The two men, however, share a father, Barack Obama Sr. He died before George turned 1 year old. But his paternity, obviously, links the half brothers. Barack Jr. and George have met face to face only twice – when George was a 5-year-old schoolboy, and whenBarack Jr. was serving in the US Senate before ascending to the White House.

The blood relationship between George and Barack Jr. seems at first like a thin reason for Homeland, a nearly 300-page memoir by a man who has not reached age 30. A potential reader would certainly remain inside the realm of logic by supposing George has published a book simply to capitalize financially on his brother’s becoming US president.

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It turns out, however, that the memoir, written with assistance from journalist Damien Lewis, is worthy for lots of reasons. The blood relationship with Barack is way down on the list of those reasons. The memoir stands on its own nicely as a coming-of-age story set in an African nation.

Naturally, George Obama dwells on becoming fatherless before his first birthday. Barack Sr. was an educated man who, as a civil servant, tried to alleviate government corruption throughout Kenya; he wanted food, housing, and other amenities of life to reach the poor before being siphoned off.

Because of his father’s legacy, George Obama grew up comfortably with a resourceful mother. During childhood, George welcomed a new “father” into the household, a French human aid worker named Christian who had been posted to Kenya. A white male rarely cohabited with a black female in Kenya, but Christian challenged the status quo. George adored him. George also adored a brother named Marvin who entered his life about the same time as Christian.

Tall, athletic, and intelligent, George lived far better than the typical Kenyan. He dreamed of becoming a commercial airline pilot. So his parents did their utmost to place George in the best schools, hoping the preparation would pay off with a college degree (available only to a select percentage of Kenyan schoolchildren) and an offer to fly for an international airline.

Despite his privileged life, George faced expulsion from expensive private schools more than once. His delinquencies included fighting, stealing, and lying.

When George was 15, Christian walked out. He did not say goodbye to George, at least according to George’s recollection. Feeling betrayed and angry, George increasingly turned to a life of crime. As a thug from the slums, George joined a gang, provoked dangerous fights with rival gangs, robbed businessmen and tourists, and generally kicked away the opportunities offered to him by a first-class education and a lucrative career.

George’s mother tried to control him, but failed, despite her loving nature. His aunt, the sister of Barack Obama Sr., lived a marginal existence in the Nairobi slums, but never lost her family pride or her insistence that George return to school. George admired and listened to his aunt, but returned to his criminal ways over and over.

Eventually, George and three of his thug buddies ended up in a Kenyan prison. The pages describing the prison violence and filth are graphic and difficult to stomach. George vowed never to return to prison.

Today, George Obama says he is devoting his considerable intelligence to improving life in the Nairobi slums. The president of the United States apparently is not helping in significant material ways. His example of great achievement, however, is a guiding light for his younger half brother.

The book is marred by the lack of sourcing, coupled with George Obama’s near-miraculous recall of conversations and events from his childhood, adolescence, and early manhood. In an “Author’s Note” he says “without doubt my memory is fallible.” But George Obama never explains when and in what ways his memory might have yielded uncertainty or downright inaccuracy.

By living in an urban slum, George Obama is able to keep his memory clear about how it feels, and felt remembrances contain value of their own. He says one-sixth of the world’s population consists of slum dwellers. If that percentage is ever to decrease, George Obama might lead the way, based on his searing personal experiences, with brother Barack providing backup through his position, which allows his words and example to touch the lives of poor and rich alike.

Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Columbia, Mo.

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