by Monte Sahlin
No president of the United States since Warren G. Harding has a closer family connection to the Seventh-day Adventist Church than Barack Obama. A recent book by BBC journalist Peter Firstbrook documents these connections. It is entitled The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family and the story is illustrative of the increasingly multicultural reality of America and the Adventist movement.
A key player in the story is President Obama’s grandfather, Onyango Obama. The family is still centered in Kendu Bay on eastern shore of Lake Victoria, today part of the nation of Kenya. They are part of the Luo people.
In 1906, Onyango was nine when Adventist missionaries arrived in the area. The missionaries were led by Arthur Carscallen, a Canadian. The first thing the missionaries did was start a school where literacy in English was taught as well as Bible.
“An accomplished linguist, Arthur Carscallen soon mastered the Dholuo language [and] went on to create the first written language and dictionary for the Luo people. He even imported a small printing press, which he used to produce a Luo grammar textbook, and spent several years translating parts of the New Testament into Dholuo.” [p 126]
The missionaries also began medical work and public health promotion. “Adventists… stress the importance of good diet and health” and started “a free clinic where they treated malaria, cholera, and other diseases. They even made house calls.” [p 126]
Firstbrook describes how the arrival of the Adventist missionaries brought change to the Luo community. It was not without conflict, but it also resulted in economic development. “Carscallen was joined by his fiancee Helen…an accomplished seamstress [who was] troubled by the lack of any clothing worn by the locals. Determined to change the situation, she began to grow cotton, and made her own fabric.” He quotes a memoir of an aging resident of the area who says that the missionaries “tried very hard to get people to wear [European clothes] by giving us sweets and sugar. But people refused.” [p 126]
The Adventist missionaries’ “focus on corporeal as well as spiritual matters brought them into conflict with some of the local traders,” writes Firstbrook. He quotes Richard Gethin, the first British businessman to settle permanently in the area, who complained that the Adventist mission got involved in trading buffalo hides and provided competition to Gethin’s commercial enterprise.
For Onyango “the arrival of the white missionaries provided an exciting diversion from the monotony of village life.” He was later described by relatives as a serious child whose curiosity drew him to the new religion. Many of the residents of this area were baptized as church members, and Onyango was among the first wave. He went off to an Adventist boarding school and “after several months’ absence… returned…dressed like a white man [in] long trousers and a white shirt.” Onyango’s father was convinced that he had broken a strict taboo against circumcision and told the family to ostracize him. [p 127-28]
Onyango adopted the ways of the missionary more fully than did most of the Luo people at the time. This resulted in the family ostracism and eventually further change. He traveled to another town in the region and during World War I, Onyango converted to Islam. This “was anathema to his family back home, who were adopting Christianity under the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventists.” [p 142]
“Like many Africans at the time” he found it difficult to reconcile “the Christian message of love and compassion toward all men…with the white man’s apparent willingness to go to war.” That is one reason Islam appealed to him. He also “appreciated the structure and discipline it brought to his life.” [p 142]
Members of the family also say “he had a liking of the Muslim ladies… he knew how to treat them…The Christians…believed that polygamy was wrong. But Muslims…gave you the assurance that you can have even five wives.” [p 142]
Today the Obama family in Kenya is split between Adventists and Muslims. Firstbrook reports he spent the inauguration celebration with the Adventist side of the family while most of the international press was with the Muslim side. He was in the town of K’obama. The K in front of the family name means that the literal translation of this town is “home of Obama.”
He tells of the feast celebrating the new president. They slaughtered “a cow and several goats, and they welcomed my offer to bring a dozen crates of soft drinks, but definitely no beer, as they were all Seventh-day Adventists.” A small generator was brought out and television sets were rented so they could watch the official ceremony half way around the world. [p 8]
Firstbrook enjoyed his time with the “wonderfully diverse mix of people, from six-year-old schoolchildren to great-grandmothers in their eighties,” noting that the young are becoming more and more educated and the quality of life is improving even in this rural area of a developing nation. He also reports that he suspected “that some of the revelers were not conforming to the strict lifestyle expected of Seventh-day Adventists.” It appeared to him that some had local beer secreted on them. He was unsure of which individuals were actual relatives and which were neighbors attracted by the party.
Connections that span the globe; inter-religious relationships; ethnic diversity; education, new technology, and change. The world in which the Obama family and other Adventists live today is so different from the world a century ago in which the Harding family celebrated one of their own becoming president of the United States.
Note: The page references are all cited from The Obamas by Peter Firstbrook published 2011 in the U.S. by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House in New York City. It is distributed by the major bookstores and online booksellers. You will save money if you get your copy from a used book store