African Studies Obama and Kenya
Matthew Carotenuto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0197


Since 2008, an industry of political biography and popular writing has tried to make sense of the Kenyan heritage of the first African American president of the United States. From popular biographies to ethnographic discussions of Obama’s paternal Luo heritage in rural western Kenya, scholars and political pundits have used Kenya’s past to recast the political rise of an American president, as an African story. Obama’s own words and actions are often secondary in this debate, with diverse forms of identity politics shaping the ways his personal and political story fits with narratives of Kenya’s past. As scholars begin to investigate the legacy of the first African American president, Kenyan history, politics, and US African relations feature prominently in the debate. Connecting work in American politics and international relations with Africanist discourse, this nascent literature reveals that diverse debates about “belonging” have dominated the discussion of Obama and Kenya. From the racial politics of US history to historical debates about ethnicity in Kenya, Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage offers a contemporary focal point for longstanding discourse about race, ethnicity, and the role of the diaspora in African affairs. Unpacking the Obama and Kenya story involves an interdisciplinary mix of work from history and anthropology to political science, sociology, and literature. Through the theme of identity politics and international relations, this article maps the Obama and Kenya story onto debates in Kenyan history and African studies more broadly. Scholars and educators interested in this topic should also take advantage of the plethora of digital primary-source material available from presidential speeches and political memoirs to campaign ephemera and social media.

General Overview

As of 2017, Barack Obama has visited Kenya only four times in his life. His first trip in 1988 introduced the future politician to his extended paternal heritage and formed much of the basis of the lengthy discussion of Kenya in his memoir Dreams from My Father. A shorter trip in 1992 reinforced this personal connection, accompanied by his then-fiancée Michelle Robinson. Two official trips as senator in 2006 and president in 2015 offer a political lens to frame his familial ties to East Africa. In the absence of more direct forms of engagement with Kenya, scholarly work on the subject has focused more on the symbolic connection than one based on actual actions or policy. Carotenuto and Luongo 2016 offers the most comprehensive analysis to date. Obama’s own 1995 memoir is the most substantial published account of the future president’s own thoughts on the Kenya connection (see Obama 1995). Jacobs 2011 and Firstbrook 2010 provide further insight into the Obama family biography, while Cohen and Odhiambo 1989 offers a seminal account in reading the experiences of Obama’s first trip to Kenya through a historical lens.

  • Carotenuto, Matthew, and Katherine Luongo. Obama and Kenya: Contested Histories and the Politics of Belonging. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2016.

    The first book-length attention to the topic directly. It places Obama’s family history and political rise into a contested story of identity politics in Kenya from colonial times to 2015. This coauthored work emphasizes the political uses of history in Kenya and the ways this history was commodified by opponents and supporters of Barack Obama, the politician.

  • Cohen, David W., and E. S. Atieno Odhiambo. Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1989.

    An important study to understand the social and political landscape of western Kenya that Obama first encountered in 1988. Cohen and Odhiambo explore diasporic and gendered notions of Luo identity, focusing on the western Kenyan county of Siaya. Much of Obama’s Kenyan family resides in the rural village of Kogelo in Siaya County.

  • Firstbrook, Peter. The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family. New York: Crown, 2010.

    Another journalistic biography of Obama’s paternal roots in Kenya, focusing mainly on the precolonial and colonial eras. This work frames the Obama lineage firmly within a grand view of Luo oral traditions and should be read as a popular application of Ogot’s seminal 1967 work (see Ogot 1967, cited under Reference Works).

  • Jacobs, Sally H. The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father. New York: Public Affairs, 2011.

    One of the only well researched popular biographies of Barack Obama Sr. Jacobs explores his early life growing up under colonial rule in Kenya, to his death in Nairobi in 1982. Written by a journalist, this work lays a foundation for future studies of the Obama family in Kenya to build on.

  • Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Random House, 1995.

    A memoir written by the future president before holding any elected office. Part 3 (pp. 299–442) chronicles his first trip to Kenya in search of his paternal roots. This book offers early insight into Obama’s understanding of African history at the time and his experiences in Nairobi and rural western Kenya, being exposed to local politics and concepts of identity.

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