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Book Review: ‘A Promised Land’ by Barack Obama

“Barack Obama is a captivating story-teller and an effortless word-weaver; once you pick up the book it’s difficult to put it down” – Gabriel Oguda

If the COVID-19 pandemic had thought it would join Kenya Power in switching off our cheerful national mood, Cousin Barry has come through with a blockbuster of a book that will keep you powered on during moments like this.

Had I been the Managing Director of the Kenya National Library Services I would have ordered a copy each for every community library under my watch, because Barack Obama has such an inspirational story for kids growing up in broken families bereft of bullet-proof confidence, hardworking parents struggling to provide the best for their children, and anyone else ploughing through life with their backs against the wall.

You do not need to keenly follow Barry, or read his works, to know that he was born to an absentee Kenyan father and an American mother. Yet this book still got nuggets of insights into Obama’s personal attachment with his Kenyan roots – you should read his description about his 2006 homecoming when he toured Kenya as Senator for Illinois.

He says in the book, that he never considered himself a big deal, until they were met with a sea of humanity during their brief visit to Kibera slums where thousands of people swarmed his car, giving his diplomatic security team a real scare. But if he had seen many people in Kibera, he wasn’t ready for the entire Luo world that turned up along the highway to welcome their prodigal son back to his father’s home in Alego. He says the Siaya road trip was Auma Obama’s idea – she had wanted Sasha and Malia to see their daddy’s other gene pool, even if they knew no Dholuo word to swim in it.

You can bet Cousin Barry wouldn’t finish his commentary about Kenya without lifting the lid off our hardwired bad manners, because this is the real issue that suffocated his late father’s genius from taking to the sky of government. Obama calls the rampant tribalism in Kenya for what it is, saying Kenyans might look the same on the surface but the hatred they have for each other based on tribal identity is deeper than you can imagine.

For those of you who have been vocal about racism in America, there’s the challenge to sweep your own bedroom first. This book is going to be read inside palaces and kingdom halls where world leaders who see Kenya as the blue-eyed child of Africa reside. They are going to start looking at Kenyans differently, asking hard questions how we have been able to mask our tribal prejudices and ethnic hatred while entertaining world leaders and winning global awards. If Kenyans have won Oscars for being great actors, it is because we are. It is our sincere hope that the Hollywood talent team will send more scouts to Kenya, now that our son Barack has let the dogs out.

If that story has made you gloomy, there is another one to cheer you up real quick.

Do you remember Obama making the pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem in July 2008 just before the elections in November that year? World leaders who visit Old Jerusalem always make a routine pit stop at the Western Wall to have a quiet session with their creator – from Pope Benedict XVI to Raila Odinga; whose trending pictures while donning a rabbi skull cap was the marvel of NASA supporters during the 2017 election campaigns.

Obama says in A Promised Land that he had peeled away from the Secret Service spiders to have a quiet session with his God at the Western Wall, and after saying a silent prayer as the bearded rabbi was reading a psalm, he wadded up his piece of paper – which we now know was plucked off hotel stationery – and pushed it deep into the crevice in the wall.

But there was a problem.

Immediately he had left, some snitch went after him, dug up that personal prayer note he had written to God and before he knew it the next day the contents of the note were being splashed in Israeli main newspapers for all the world to see.

Thank God Cousin Barry is a decent man, because in that stolen note to God this was his sincere prayer request: “Lord, protect my family and me. Forgive my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.”

You can only imagine if that leaked note had been from Donald J. Trump. No one knows how God would have responded to that tantramic note, but you could suspect it would have been the first time a heavenly prayer request would have been returned to sender attached with the Google Maps of hell.

The book is spiced up with 81 high resolutions photos of Barack Obama’s definitive moments – from his boyhood baseball bat to his fatherhood swing-set at the White House lawn. But one photo that got me thinking is the one of him and Joe Biden riding on the backseat of ‘The Beast’.

You should see the photo – the seal of the President of the United States stitched at the centre of the leather backrest symmetrically separating Obama and Biden. The picture is taken at exactly the point where Biden leans over to explain a point to Obama who is forced to suspend multitasking on his Blackberry phone to pay full attention to Biden dropping scientific wisdom. You can tell the photo was deliberately chosen to demonstrate that Biden will have no difficulties fitting into his new POTUS role, and not for the first time in the book.

While Obama says the photo was taken while they were on their way to sign their Wall Street Reform Bill into law, what he did not tell Biden that day, which he has now told us in the book, is the political dogfighting Biden is about to encounter from the Republican Party once he takes over as the new POTUS.

Of course, Barry is a nice guy who polishes his words when speaking about his adversaries – and so I will take it upon myself to give the real State of The Union address for world viewers who aren’t used to politicians being refined, in suit and demeanor.

From the narrations on what the Republican Party took Obama through after taking over as the 44th President of the United States, you get the feeling that the Republican Party is infested with a core pool of deep pocketed barons who are selfish in their partisanship and vindictive in their violence.

Obama says that immediately he was inaugurated in 2009, The Koch Brothers – David and Charles (if you don’t know the Koch brothers you need to take this as your assignment and dig them up) – pulled together a conclave of some of America’s wealthiest conservatives in a smartly manicured resort in Indian Wells, California, with the sole aim of mapping out a strategy to fight back the Obama win straight away. While Obama had offered the Republican Party an olive branch so as to heal the rifts from the 2008 campaigns, he says these guys weren’t interested in a handshake. They made it clear that they wanted war, and they wanted it right now.

That conclave of wealthy conservatives meeting in that lush resort resolved under one voice to send a strongly worded statement to all Republican politicians without the stomach to resist Obama policies that they would not only start finding donations drying up, but also, they should consider themselves the target of a well-financed primary challenge.

You would think those were idle threats from sore losers, until you get to the meat of the story.

Obama goes ahead to say that during the transition, he had met with Judd Gregg, then a respected Republican Senator from New Hampshire, and offered to make him the Commerce Secretary – part of his effort to deliver a bipartisan government. The guy readily accepted the role, only for former First Lady Barbara Bush to call and warn him against taking the job. Follow up haranguing came from Mitch McConnell and the high rank of the Republican Senate Caucus. Seeing that they were on his case like white on rice, the guy cracked, and a week after Obama had announced his nomination, Judd Gregg called him to withdraw. If Joe Biden thinks he’ll be jogging into the Presidency like he jogs onto podiums, this is his warning shot.

Minus the index, the book is 706 pages long, but Barack Obama is a captivating story-teller and an effortless word-weaver; once you pick up the book it’s difficult to put it down. I do not consider myself a fast reader, as I tend to doodle notes as I read, but even then I was able to plough a cumulative total of 332 pages of this book in one sitting.

Obama’s personality is difficult not to love and shines through in the book. This guy was a rank outsider for the POTUS job, and received minimal love from political adversaries and white supremacists while at it, but the tone of this book is neither vindictive nor retaliatory. Donald Trump fans would be happy to note that despite all the bigoted stick their totemic warlord took Obama through, Barry has chosen Michelle’s advice and has gone higher in providing a fair assessment of the orange-man – something that has left political pundits questioning his Kenyan roots. We can now understand why he is considered superhuman in some quarters; it is fair to conclude that Donald Trump has been looking for African Angels in the wrong places.

I leave you with the immortal words of Ted Kennedy – heir to the most famous name in American politics and by then the closest thing Washington had to a living legend – who said this to Barack Obama when the Junior Senator from Illinois had gone to ask for his opinion on whether he should run for President:

“I won’t be wading in early,” Ted said. “I have too many friends interested in the seat, but I can tell you this Barack; The power to inspire is rare. Moments like this are rare. You think you may not be ready, that you’ll do it at a more convenient time. The time chooses you. Either you seize what may turn out to be only chance you have, or you decide you’re willing to live with the knowledge that the chance had passed you by.”

And may the day break.

This review was written by Gabriel Oguda.

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