Lessons from Auma Obama

Tammy Sutherns
Tammy Sutherns

By Tam Sutherns

Auma Obama – US President Barrack Obama’s half sister – is most definitely not a politician. With tiny dreadlocks and a booming voice that could engulf the whole of her home country, Kenya, she makes no apologies for being who she is.

Which is why being at her book reading at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg a few weeks ago was such an experience. Her book, entitled ‘And Then Life Happens’, is all about her childhood, her struggles with her father, Barrack Obama Senior, and her studying years in Germany where she got a scholarship. Despite being told as a young Kenyan woman that because she was a girl, a certain path was already carved for her, she managed to get herself to Germany, receive an education and thwart a patriarchal culture. And yet it is a culture she still loves and calls home.

When you hear Auma speak, you think, “Now that’s a woman who knows what she is talking about.” It’s the same thought you can see crossing over every other enthralled-listener’s face. Passionate, bold but level headed she explains at her book launch how she had to rebel patriarchy in her culture very quietly and subtly. Children, and especially girl children, where seen and not heard in her home after all. At her book reading she explains, “I didn’t accept that answer – ‘It’s because you are a girl’. So I would politely ask why. The best we could do to rebel in our home was to sulk.”

So one can imagine it came as quite a shock to Barrack Snr when his only daughter fled Kenya without his knowledge to Germany. In fact when he came to visit her months later, she was terrified he was going to haul her back to Africa. However the book portrays the complexities of patriarchy, describing instead how Auma’s father sat on her bed in her university residence and looked incredibly sad, asking why she had not told him she had received a scholarship to study. He then goes on to tell her how proud he is of her. Auma explains, “I think it was a painful revelation for him because he realized that he had lost his little girl forever. For the first time he was forced to see me as a woman in my own right and as an adult and as an individual.”

Interestingly enough however, Auma does not call herself a feminist, asking instead, “What does being a feminist mean?” It’s hard to know exactly what she means by this but it seems to be more a question of definition, challenging the audience, than it is a refusal to categorize herself. It is as if she wants to take the concept and have it explained to her in real terms and then personified into real people. A woman who uses her influence to ensure other young African woman get a chance at education and a future as well as someone who speaks out on a number of issues worldwide, one cannot imagine not calling Auma a feminist however.

And this is what I took away from it. It’s easy for us as feminists to call on women and men to overthrow patriarchy, but what if patriarchy has your father’s face on it? It’s easy for us to fight institutions, but it’s people who make up those institutions. So what struck me about Auma Obama was how she manages to embody such a fearless woman who refuses to be a victim of her circumstances, but still manages to retain such incrediable compassion. And compassion is easy to forget when we’re fighting our daily feminist battles.


“Compassion alone stands apart from the continuous traffic between good and evil proceeding within us.” – Eric Hoffer



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