As women, we are always looking for a shared experience. No matter where you were born, the circumstances you grew up in, or the paths you have chosen to navigate in this journey called life, women are always brought together by each other’s stories, lessons and values. For me, I have always tried to surround myself with strong women, women who I can learn from, who can help me grow, and who can challenge me and my perceptions of how I see myself and others. A lot of us read the memoirs of great people to learn from, for me it was Maya Angelou and Coco Chanel, I devour their words of experience and always come away with just a bit more ambition and drive than I had before. I now have the honour of adding another inspirational woman to my list of favourite writers, Dr. Auma Obama. I was given the tremendous honour of interviewing her, and if I may say this, it will live in my memory as the best hour of my professional career thus far.
Her brother, President Barack Obama, may be the most powerful man in the world and with that has also ensured that the surname Obama has become a household name the world over; but Auma Obama is a fierce lady in her own right. She is strong and courageous, and knows who she is in the most authentic and truest sense of the word. She is a champion of human rights and a warrior like no other in making sure that the eyes we all see ourselves in are bursting with self worth, love and acceptance. She has lived a life, at times rooted in pain, but beautiful nonetheless. Her journey has taken her from her rural birthplace of Kenya, to the streets of both Germany and England. Her story is one of perseverance and self-belief, a belief in herself so strong that she knew who and what she was destined to be, even when she was told as a little girl that she couldn’t achieve it, based solely on the fact that she was a female. She worked on the presidential campaign in America in 2008 when her brother made history by becoming the first African American president of the United States of America, and she devotes herself tirelessly and without fail to her incredible foundation in Kenya, Sauti Kuu in Swahili, which means Powerful Voices in English.
After reading Dr Obama’s powerful memoir, it left me with so many questions I wanted to ask her. It’s no secret the immense respect I have for the Obama family. Way back in 2004, my attention was held by this pillar of a man with the voice of an angel who spoke at the Democratic National Convention in the States. From that moment on, I read all I could on this man and his family, and I remember reading about Dr. Auma Obama. I remember clearly thinking what an amazing woman she was, and what would I ask her if I ever got the chance to meet her. Well, as dreams sometimes do, it came true. I hope you all enjoy this read as much as I loved writing it for you.
Mandi Strimling – And Then Life Happens is a beautifully written account of your journey. In the first few chapters, you speak about your discovery and love of literature, in particular, German writings. Books have a way of letting us escape for a short while, was that the outlet it provided for you growing up, and what other lessons did your love of reading give you?
Dr. Obama – For me books were always very important, I read a lot and definitely yes it was an escape. I read for pleasure but definitely especially when I was a teenager and what I describe in my book is the fact that I could really disappear into a world of other people’s lives and forget the stresses of my life, and that was really for me why books were such an important companion during that period.
Mandi Strimling – Do you also feel that your love of reading gave you a great gift in allowing you to write your own book?
Dr. Obama – With regards to writing my own book, I would like to say yes it has helped a lot because I read a lot. I love books and I read intensely and extensively and it does influence how you write, it really does and I keep saying that to young people ‘please you must read’, it teaches you how to use words, understand words and enables you to communicate fully. So for me I know that literature was very important for me. How I form my words is very much influenced by what I have read, and I am so grateful for it. I think it would have been a lot harder to write this book if I had been somebody who was not a reader.
Mandi Strimling – I can relate to that immensely. If I have a deadline and have complete writer’s block, my release is to immediately pick up a book or some form of literature, and start to read. Within an hour or two I’m fresh and inspired and those words seem to come easier once you’ve read.
Dr. Obama – That’s beautiful, because you get into that space, that space of using words and communicating by words, but it has to be the written word and not so much by talking. When I was writing my book I picked up several books in the process just to get the feel of what it meant to write a memoir, because it was the first time for me.
Mandi Strimling – Were there any memoirs in particular that inspired you?
Dr. Obama – I think one of the ones that I remember specifically going out of my way to look for, which I had already read before, but it was Maya Angelou’s books, especially Why The Cage Bird Sings. I read them because part of what I tell in my story is very painful, and where you may think ‘oh my gosh this is going to depress the reader’, and what I remember most from reading Maya Angelou as a young girl is that she inspired me, she was telling a story about a life that was really difficult with a lot of challenges, but the way she told it, you came away laughing and inspired. You had a smile on your face. I thought that’s how I want my book to be. I want people to read my book and come away feeling like, yes she had those challenges but she overcame them and life is still good. And so that is one of the authors that I picked up while I was writing this book. Mandi Strimling – I am a lover of books, and a firm believer that books provide knowledge and empowerment. At Rave Review, we are all about female empowerment, giving women the tools to see their self worth and their value. Should we be doing a lot more to help in terms of illiteracy and education, especially in young women?
Dr. Obama – I don’t believe that illiteracy is disempowerment. I think literacy is empowerment but illiteracy is not necessarily disempowerment as such. I think it’s your environment. It’s where you grew up, because you can have a girl child who has never learned to read or write but if she has a family that nurtures her, loves her and values her for who she is and helps her progress and promotes her as a human being, she will grow into a wonderful person with self confidence, self esteem and self worth. If you have education as well, it of course enriches that and the value that you gain is immeasurable. In the case of children who do not have any support, and on top of that are illiterate, then of course that’s a really bad situation to be in, so you definitely want them to gain that education in literacy. That education then provides them with the tools and resources to equip them to cope with their situation. They then have resources to tap into which they wouldn’t necessarily have access to.
On the other hand again, education, in particular for the girl child is so important. With our world of today, everybody needs an education and one of the things that research has found, especially with the girl child is that if she’s educated and prepared in the correct way to enter the working world, she will very rarely start having children early, she’ll understand the value of ‘I want to get a job’, ‘I want to move myself forward’. Education helps the woman to form her life and lead her life in a way that she’s able to really gain a certain level of independence which is very difficult to gain if you have no education because you cant look after yourself. In that sense, education is always important and everybody should have the right to get it.
Mandi Strimling – Would you say that there are enough charitable movements, enough aid for what you speak about above?
Dr. Obama – I don’t think that education should be the responsibility of aid money. It should not be charity. Education is a right. It should never be the responsibility of a charity, and that’s a very dangerous position to take because education is a right for all children and young people. I am also not keen on charity being the way social consciousness is lived out, because that’s the problem we have as a country in Kenya. We are constantly with so called development aid, been dealing with so many poor and vulnerable people by trying to give them charitable help that we have actually disempowered them to take their own lives into their own hands and look after themselves and be responsible for themselves to the point where there’s a sense of entitlement around getting this help and which to me I just basically interpret it and call it begging. We’ve created societies and communities where they sit and wait to get the help and very often the help is coming from international organisations and a white community, so already in that sense if you’re talking about an African community, they have been diminished in their dignity and I honestly believe, even with working with poverty and people that are desperately poor they still have a level of dignity and its about working with them together to find ways to support them in finding ways to take control of their lives and making the right decisions, and then we go and improve on those solutions because we have the exposure to do so.
The foundation that I am now working with, that’s the primary work we do. It’s called Powerful Voices (Sauti Kuu in Swahili). We work with them to gain self esteem and self confidence so that they reach a point where they see themselves as valuable individuals in their own right who can contribute and by being those valuable individuals it gives them a voice, and the minute you can voice an issue, you become powerful, a force to be reckoned with and you become an advocate for your own rights. Without a voice nobody will hear you. That is the platform we provide. Young people can actually take those next steps and take their lives into their own hands so they become active participants who are now leading.
Mandi Strimling – And those young people then ultimately give back to their communities?
Dr. Obama – Exactly, and they give back in the end. Not only do they become role models but they are actively working on improving their lives so that others realize it’s possible for them to do this too. I am very conscious of the fact that the girl child has to have a particular type of attention because we are socialized in a way that when we are interacting and are in any way involved in an activity where boys are also involved, we tend to step back and let the boys take centre stage. So in order for the girls not to be left behind they need a special type of attention, and it’s that attention one equates with gender equity. For a very long time people used to talk about gender equality, and you’d step back and say ‘wait a minute, gender equality, I don’t want to be like a guy, I want to continue to be a woman but I want to have the same opportunities’. That’s where we speak about equity. Creating opportunities for girls that enable them also to move forward. They can then come to a level of appreciation and recognition just as the boys do, without having to deny themselves. That’s very important for me in general and in the work that I do. Mandi Strimling – You speak a lot about your culture in the book, paying a lot of attention to the role women had in the years you were growing up. Your frustration at the things and opportunities that you could not reach for, and at the same time realizing that your brother Abongo could. Did you realize early on that this was not an equal society, and how as a strong, young woman do you even start to comprehend what that means?
Dr. Obama – Well you get told. I knew consciously from the age of 8 that I was going to be treated differently. As an adult its probably easier to comprehend that all, but as a child what it was, was just the unfairness of the whole situation. Every child knows what it means to be unfair. So just knowing that I cant do this or that and then when asking the question why, was answered with because you’re a girl. I would then immediately counter with why not? It was a situation where I challenged the status quo, and I challenged it just based on the little things that I was not allowed to do and my older brother was allowed to do. It was as simple as that. There was no rocket science about it, it was simply a sense of fairness and how one should be treated, having a right to better treatment. That is simply what it was. The thing is, I knew it was a cultural issue because I would discuss it with my grandmother. I was a very curious child and asked many questions so we were having these conversations all the time where my grandmother would kind of use the cultural threats, jokingly of course, to try to stop me from challenging. But it didn’t change and it carried on till I was older, I could see it in my day to day life with my older brother who would tell me that I couldn’t do this or that because I was a girl. I think many cultures have that where you end up leaving your culture because you’re constantly told what you can and cannot do and in this particular case it was listing my limitations due to the fact that I was a girl, which I refused to accept.
Mandi Strimling – Were a lot of girls at that stage being passive about their own situation and not standing up to it and challenging those ideals in the way you did?
Dr. Obama – I always made sure I challenged and stood up for myself in a polite and respectful way. That’s something I always try to make clear and tell people because I was still a child of my culture, and as an African child you don’t answer back and you are very respectful of your elders. The most radical I would get was by sulking, not talking. My older brother, Abongo, of course was a little bit more aggressive being two years older, so we would have a lot of fights around that, he would try to force me to succumb to his authority which I would totally refuse to do. So there’s some very amusing parts in the book where that push and pull takes place. It wasn’t that I was outwardly aggressive at all; I just tried to put myself in places where I could then be myself and live out my need to seen, accepted and understood as a human being. Some actions were a bit radical in my later years where I actually left Kenya and moved to Germany.
Mandi Strimling – Your decision to move to Germany was mainly rooted in wanting to break free, to pave a new road for yourself, one with no limitations. Was it hard to leave your family and move to a new country, a new culture?
Dr. Obama – In the initial stages, to leave was not difficult, because remember I really wanted to go and spread my wings and pave my own way, carve my own identity. So that was really an adventure, like being a pioneer and going off to start something new. Once I did get to Germany and then dealing with the new people and culture then I was confronted with their perception of me. This is what it means to them for me to be an African woman and then I had to deal with the questions around that. I started questioning ‘what is my identity?’, and ‘who am I?’, not just as a girl but as a person, as an African. The way in which I was being perceived led me then to question if I recognized what they saw and of course in most cases it was a negative. I did not see myself. That was the next stage of my coming of age, forming my identity was based around dealing with all of that, a completely foreign culture that assumed to know who I was and who tried to put me in a box and define me, label me, and that was a challenge for a very long time. I think my whole time in Germany was always that fight, which I don’t see as being completely negative but it was always there, that awareness and consciousness.
Mandi Strimling – Barack Snr, your father, as we know left Kenya to study in America where he fell in love with and married an American woman. The child they had together is perhaps the most famous man in the world today, President Barack Obama. When you got to Germany as an exchange student, could you then relate to the limbo your dad struggled with. Almost being stuck between two world and cultures?
Dr. Obama – I can of course totally identify with my father, I also left Kenya and went abroad. I had to come to terms with my identity over there through a greater awareness of who I was then I would have gotten had I stayed in Kenya. In that sense there was a definite identification, in fact the motivation for me to write the book initially before I got a book deal, was because I was interested in writing about my father and how he coped with this cross cultural environment that he had to navigate and how he sometimes found it so difficult, trying to explain how hard it was, and that he wasn’t an exception. That was the fate and the destiny for all of us coming from countries that were former colonies. So definitely I could identify with my father but like I said, to the extent that I was actually really interested in writing about that topic in itself, to give people a better idea of what we went through and how we managed to juggle between these cultures, and do pretty well in doing so.
Mandi Strimling – Dreams Of My Father, written by your brother, President Obama, is one of my favourite books. I own the audio CD as well. His voice and words have this innate way of calming me down, and I often say that he could read the phone book to me and it would have that same effect. President Obama credits you as the person who filled in the missing pieces in his life, the void in his life. Did meeting him have the same profound effect on your life?
Dr. Obama – I must admit it did. Up until then, my siblings and my family didn’t really understand me very well, how driven I was. For me also having this need to be seen and understood as an individual person, having this strong sense of my own value, all of that was something that was going to deep for my family. Their feeling was to come home, get married and have children, and for some people that’s great, and that’s what fulfils them, but for me I wanted something more. I had this situation where I was constantly challenging the status quo. When I met him it was really a revelation to find somebody who actually took the time to listen to me, took the time to understand where I was coming from with this drive inside of me to create a space for myself, and also consequently to make a difference. Having the sensitivity to make change happen. It was really great and just knowing that he was my brother, and he accepted that and he listened to me and took me seriously was really powerful for me.
Mandi Strimling – You both then also had the same-shared goal of wanting to create change, to make a difference in people’s lives by working in humanitarian causes?
Dr. Obama – People ask me about that a lot, and I say it’s by coincidence. We didn’t somehow tell each other to agree on this, that is just how we were and maybe it has something to do with our father because he had that as well. But then again Barack’s mom was also involved in that field, that’s the area she worked in as well. I think it has to do with our personalities. He is a person that feels he can make a difference, and he felt that that was the path he wanted to take. Similarly for me I had that feeling and it just so happens that we are siblings and we are very blessed in that way.
Mandi Strimling – You were incredibly nervous at having to meet him in person for the first time, you had that fear of not living up to the others expectation or even having anything in common. But once you met you had an instant brother sister connection. Were you surprised and shocked at how quickly those feelings came?
Dr. Obama – I think I was more relieved than shocked. I was so worried that it would be awkward, that we wouldn’t get along, and it would be ten days of just trying to get through those days and it turned out to be just amazing because we instantly connected. We spent the ten days talking nonstop, catching up, it was just a really great time, and it was a bit sad because I had only planned to be with him for those ten days and I could have been with him a lot longer, but there you have it. It worked out in the end. Mandi Strimling – You got the chance to work on President Obama’s presidential campaign. When did you sit back for the first time and say, wow, he could actually do this?
Dr. Obama – You know to be honest, once the campaign started, from that moment on, and with our involvement, you had to believe it from then on. If you didn’t have that belief then you couldn’t have worked on the campaign. That was the attitude of everyone working together. With all the ups and downs and the fears of how close and how far it was, that belief was there from the onset for me, and I believe for many, that he was going to win this thing, otherwise you don’t go into the race; you don’t start running the race if you think you’re going to lose it.
Mandi Strimling – And his belief in himself was important as well.
Dr. Obama – Yes that was really important, as was our belief in him. All of us had that attitude. In terms of how hard it was, the fight was incredibly hard, it was a difficult campaign so we felt we could not rest up, you had to always be on your game. It was very exciting, very intense and very challenging at times, but you didn’t let your guard down, and that’s what was so exceptional about it, was that everybody was on the ball the entire time because it was so important. I never doubted for a second. If he had not won I would have been terribly disappointed and would have said let the best person win, but in reality we were going for it. We were going full out to have him win and when he did it was just the most amazing experience we were so very proud of him, and I am particularly proud of him because it was just a massive historic achievement.
Mandi Strimling – What happened in that election, on that day, changed America, it changed the world?
Dr. Obama – Yes it has, exactly. It did change the world we live in. Imagine all the young people who can now look at Barack Obama and say if I wanted to I could be president. What a gift is that to give young people, so he did a great thing.
Mandi Strimling – I used to wake up at 3am every morning for every presidential debate, never missing one. And on election night I sat and watched from 5pm that evening to 8am the next morning, almost transfixed and in awe of what was transpiring on my screen. It was the most incredible memory, with tears streaming down my face. Nobody can ever take that moment away from me.
Dr Obama – That is so sweet, so wonderful to hear. It really was incredible. The support was wonderful. There was a young South African whom I met in Iowa, who was on the campaign, and he was there because he had taken a year off school to be there. And I stopped him jokingly and said what are you doing here, you can’t even vote. His answer was that it didn’t even matter to him because the world needed Barack Obama; he needs all the support he can get and that is why I am here. I felt a WOW going through me; that humbled me, these young people really humbled me. Mandi Strimling – Where do you think President Obama’s incredible ability of putting people at ease comes from? When he speaks, everyone is transfixed on him and nobody moves. I’m feeling that very same thing sitting here with you; you are totally present, completely engaged. That comes from a really special place obviously?
Dr. Obama – I think in that sense, and this is just myself talking from a sister point of view from observing him, I think he has it a lot more than I do. That is what was so amazing to see, is that he really touches people, and moves people. People relate to him and he’s able to accommodate that need for them to communicate with him, so that for me as a sister was amazing to watch. It’s a great gift that he has. Mandi Strimling – You have this incredible platform to do what you love – humanitarian work. Can you share with us what you are doing now with regards to your own foundation, Powerful Voices?
Dr Obama – Well what I was telling you earlier with regards to young people taking control of their lives, by having a sense of their own value. Not being victims, not begging for charity. Learning to take control of their situations and be the responsible person to make a change happen in their lives. That’s what the foundation is trying to do and that’s also why we call it Powerful Voices. The actual foundation name is Sauti Kuu and that means Powerful Voices in Swahili and the work we’re doing is really trying to get into the heads of the young people and have the conversations with them and challenge them around their attitudes, because the few communities we work in, these vulnerable, raw communities where people are very needy, many times because of the way development aid has been given in the past, they sit and wait for the help. They aren’t proactive anymore in their own futures, and are now in a state of dependency on these organisations. What we are trying to do is to come in a say guys you need to take your life into your own hands, and you are responsible and cannot be a victim. What we are seeing now is that for them to be able to reach that place, they have to have a sense of self, to value themselves. So we do a lot of work around self-development, self-appreciation and self-confidence. One of the key things around our foundation is we try to work with young people to teach them to use the resources that they have already to get what they need. If you’re a rural child and you have land, ask your family to give you an acre, which we do, and we will work together to make this acre profitable, to get you an income to enable you to pay school fees and put food on the table. And if you’re a kid in the urban area where your only resource is your mind, we will work with you to see where can you go to school and then it is up to you to work hard and get good grades. We’ll help to look for scholarships in a trade so that you can get that job and earn an income of your own, but you must be the one who is the motivator, proactively setting the standard for yourself, we don’t talk of aid, and we don’t talk of help. If you want to be successful you need to own it. So that’s the work we do, working with young individuals to build their character.
Mandi Strimling – Are women in a better place in the world now then we were twenty years ago?
Dr. Obama – I think the women of today have more options and more opportunities than before. You still find women in very repressive or oppressive conditions and circumstances within their communities or in their culture. There are definitely more options and the key way to improving that is what we said before, education. If you expose women to quality education and not just any education, that’s very important to differentiate the two, it has to be quality. Couple that with more possibilities you are opening up to women, and by doing so you are giving them tools to change their lives.
Mandi Strimling – If you got a chance right now to talk to the little girl you were, what would you tell her about life, and what lessons have you learned? What would the woman you are today tell the little girl you were about the world you have lived in?
Dr. Obama – One of the key lessons is that you have to learn to value yourself and value yourself as a human being and insist on the rest of the world valuing you in that same way, because if you can value yourself and have good self esteem, and self worth then you will have the confidence to take a stand in what happens in and to your life and that is very important. You have to see yourself as responsible for your life and most importantly to take ownership of that responsibility.
The lessons I take away from meeting with and speaking to Dr Obama stems not just from the life she has led, and the sheer grace and class she has shown in leading her life, I take away a lot more than that. I take comfort in the fact that as women of today, we are shining as brightly as the sun. To value oneself, to accept who you are with no limitations; to always make sure we rejoice in our gifts and achievements as women of the world; this is the greatest lesson I take away from my conversation with Dr Obama. To keep walking the road with my head held high, to know I have a voice, and to use that voice no matter the circumstance; that makes me strong and unstoppable. I thank Dr Obama for her openness to my questions, for being so engaged and present, a gift that she possesses in abundance, and for welcoming me more as a new friend than as an interviewer. She is the epitome of what we as women can achieve with strength, self-confidence, and boundless self worth.
***RAVE REWARD – RAVE REVIEW AND PANMACMILLAN SOUTH AFRICA ARE GIVING AWAY THREE COPIES OF DR. AUMA OBAMA’S BREATHTAKING MEMOIR, AND THEN LIFE HAPPENS. TO ENTER, EMAIL INFO@RAVEREVIEW.CO.ZA . WHAT DO YOU WISH FOR YOURSELF? WE WANT TO KNOW.