The forgotten heroes in the riveting Obama narrative


What you need to know:

  • Many Kenyans assume that Barack Obama Sr. was in the Mboya Airlift but he wasn’t; and indeed he did not qualify.

  • The Mboya Airlift took people who had obtained at least Division II in the Cambridge School Certificate examination. Obama got Division III

As I watched the larger than life images of President Obama and his sister on the screen at Kasarani, I thought of two people whose roles in the Obama narrative are largely unknown.

The first is a white American woman called Elizabeth Mooney, who was in charge of a literacy programme in Kenya back in the late 1950s.

The second is  Prof Festus Mutere, who was the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs of the University of Nairobi.

Many Kenyans assume that Barack Obama Sr. was in the Mboya Airlift but he wasn’t; and indeed he did not qualify. The Mboya Airlift took people who had obtained at least Division II in the Cambridge School Certificate examination. Obama got Division III.

In her book The Other Barack:  The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father, Sally Jacobs tells us that Obama was expelled from Maseno School before he completed Form Four. Mr Bowers, the principal of the school came across an anonymous letter complaining about the “inedible food”,  “antiquated uniforms,” and most worryingly: the institution’s “second-rate teachers.”

The letter was handwritten and unsigned, but the principal traced it to Obama and expelled him.

The poor guy was then forced to sit his Cambridge School Certificate exam as an outsider with no access to the school library and the “second-rate” teachers. He was clearly disadvantaged and this may explain why, bright as he was, he only managed a Division III.


After the expulsion, Obama’s father, whose middle name was harshness, beat him up and forced him after the exam to find himself a job. He eventually found employment as  a secretary to Miss Elizabeth Mooney who immediately took a liking to Obama, both as a secretary and as a person. 

After the young man had failed the interview for the Mboya Airlift, she decided to help him find an alternative route to America. Mooney advised Obama to study for an American college entrance examination.  She asked her relatives and friends to send her books from the US, which she then gave to Obama.  There were locally available British publications, but Mooney was looking for those which were “slanted to American schools”; and she eventually got them and guided Obama in his studies.

When the results were announced, Obama had scored well enough to apply to a US college.  He applied to over 30 universities, as indeed his famous son reminded us at Kasarani.

Elizabeth Mooney attached her recommendation to applications, pleading with university authorities to give the Kenyan student a chance.

Obama secured admission into two universities:  San Francisco State College and Hawaii University.  Mooney advised him to go to Hawaii, a university that turned out to be truly multiracial, multicultural, and singularly liberal. It was at this institution that he met, dated and eventually married the mother of President Obama.

The Mboya Airlift students had their air tickets paid for; and this was in addition to the full scholarships.  Not so Obama.  And again, Elizabeth Mooney had to assist. Her salary of $6,355 was not phenomenal; so, she was making a big sacrifice when she paid for Obama’s air ticket, accommodation, and tuition in the first year.  Sally Jacobs puts it thus: “her gift to Obama was extraordinary”.

The second unsung hero, as I pointed out earlier, is Prof Mutere (and may his soul continue to rest in peace!).

In his brilliant autobiography Dreams from My Father, President Obama talked about being hosted by his sister Auma, who was then teaching at the University of Nairobi. For her part, Auma Obama has written a beautiful autobiography called And Then Life Happens, in which, among other things, she talks about the time she taught at the University of Nairobi.  But there is a backstory to all this, which I feel called upon to reveal to the reader.

In 1987, I was the Chair of the Department of Literature and Prof Mutere was the Deputy Vice Chancellor in Academic Affairs.  One day he sent a young lady to me called Auma Obama who was seeking a position to teach German.  German was, however, taught in the sister Department of Linguistics and African Languages. In my department, the closest we got to this area was German literature in translation, part of a course we called European Literature.  As we talked, I thought she could teach Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann for us.

Shortly after she left, Prof Mutere called me to his office.

“Have you seen Auma Obama, the   lady I sent to you?” he asked.

“Yes, she came to my office,” I replied.

“I just want to help the daughter of my late friend Mr Obama,” he said in a faraway tone. “The Department of Linguistics and African Languages has told me they have no vacancy.   But I have noticed that Literature has an empty slot,” he continued.

“Yes, we have one vacancy,” I said.

“Can you lend that slot to Linguistics so that we hire Auma Obama against it?”

“Yes, we can.”


In those days, departments used to borrow slots from other departments; and when the situation changed they would return them.

Prof Mutere then hurriedly convened an appointments committee meeting, which I attended and at which we interviewed Ms Obama. We offered her a job in the Department of Linguistics and African Languages under the arrangement I have just described.

A few days after this meeting the then Vice Chancellor summoned me to his office and yelled at me.

“You colluded with Prof Mutere to hire a member of staff without my authority?”  he said in an usually loud voice, while avoiding eye contact.

I was taken aback and didn’t know what to say but it was apparent  somebody had complained about Auma Obama’s appointment. I said to myself:  “Prof Mutere is the Vice Chancellor’s deputy. Why couldn’t he have confronted him directly? I was simply a departmental head.”

I have told this story because I believe Prof Mutere had a strong liking for Obama Sr and that he was ready to go the extra mile to help his daughter.

He apparently defied his boss and tried to circumvent the technical hitches that might have blocked the appointment.

You can as the reader guess what I’m getting at.  If Mutere had not done what he did — that is, helped the daughter of his dear departed friend — the future president of America might probably have slept in some dingy hotel in downtown Nairobi rather than in his sister’s apartment; and the sister would not have had the money to afford let alone fuel and repair the beat-up Volkswagen Beetle that we heard about.

So, back to what I said at the beginning of this article.  President Obama and his sister are global icons.

They have secured themselves a permanent place in world history.  But the two people: Elizabeth Mooney and Festus Mutere, who played a definitive role in their story remain the unsung heroes in the still-unfolding, riveting and complex Obama narrative.



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