Tuesday, November 03, 2009


In Dreams from My Father Obama wrote a fascinating and masterful account of his search for identity. As I read, I found myself thinking what a miracle it is that such a man could really be our president. I don't know how I failed to read this for so long.

In the final section of the book, Obama gave a long description of his first visit to his African family in Kenya. He uses quotes from various relatives to provide insight into his personal discoveries about family, colonialism, and many other issues. One quote from Rukia, a woman who had been a friend of his late father, discusses authenticity. Rukia, a historian, uses food -- a meal of tilapia fish stew and ugali cornbread -- to explore this topic. He wrote:
I asked her why she thought black Americans were prone to disappointment when they visited Africa. She shook her head and smiled. 'Because they come here looking for the authentic,' she said. 'That is bound to disappoint a person. Look at this meal we are eating. Many people will tell you that the Luo [her and Obama's tribe] are a fish-eating people. But that was not true for all Luo. Only those who lived by the lake. And even for those Luo it was not always true. Before they settled around the lake, they were pastoralists, like the Masai. Now, if you and your sister behave yourself and eat a proper share of this food, I will offer you tea. Kenyans are very boastful about the quality of their tea, you notice. But of course we got this habit from the English. Our ancestors did not drink such a thing. Then there's the spices we used to cook this fish. They originally came from India, or Indonesia. So even in this simple meal, you will find it very difficult to be authentic -- although the meal is certainly African.

Rukia rolled a ball of ugali in her hand and dipped it into her stew. 'You can hardly blame black Americans, of course, for wanting an unblemished past.... They're not unique in this desire. (p 433)


Jen said...

Or an unblemished cultural milieu - one of the problems with globalization is the growing sameness of so many regions.

Stasya said...

it feels good to know you are part of an ancient tradition, even when you are severed from it. its the same with native america. Natives and non natives seem to expect a sort of 'sameness' evocative of the media and film of the day - but in reality we are all modern people, globalization has definitely done it - i guess modernity spoils the image and the pride.