Granny stood up and brushed the grass off her skirt. The yard was hushed, the silence broken only by a bird’s anxious trill. “It’s going to rain,” she said, and we all gathered up the mats and cups and carried them into the house.
Once inside, I asked Granny if she had anything left of the Old Man’s or our grandfather’s. She went into her bedroom, sorting through the contents of an old leather trunk. A few minutes later, she emerged with a rust-colored book the size of a passport, along with a few papers of different colours, stapled together and chewed at an angle along one side.
“I’m afraid this is all I could find,” she said to Auma. “The rats got to the papers before I had a chance to put them away.”
Auma and I sat down and set the book and papers on the low table in front of us. The binding on the red book had crumbled away, but the cover was still legible: Domestic Servant’s Pocket Register, it read, and in smaller letters, Issued under the Authority of the Registration of Domestic Servant’s Ordinance, 1928, Colony and Protectorate of Kenya. On the book’s inside cover, we found a two-shilling stamp above Onyango’s left and right thumbprints. The swirls were still clear, like an imprint of coral. The box was empty where the photograph once had been.
The preamble explained: The object of this Ordinance is to provide every person employed in a domestic capacity with a record of such employment, and to safeguard his or her interests as well as to protect employers against the employment of persons who have rendered themselves unsuitable for such work.
The term servant was defined: cook, house servant, waiter, butler, nurse, valet, bar boy, footmen, or chauffeur, or washermen. The rules governing the carrying of such passbooks: servants found to be working without such books, or in any way injuring such books, are liable to a fine not exceeding one hundred shillings or to imprisonment not exceeding six months or to both. And then, the particulars of said Registered Servant, filled out in the elegant, unhurried script of a nameless clerk:
Name: Hussein II Onyango. Native Registration Ordinance No.: Rwl A NBI 09767/7.
Race or Tribe: Ja’Luo.
Usual Place of Residence When Not Employed: Kisumu
Sex: M. Age: 35.
Height and Build: 6’0″ Medium.
Teeth: Six Missing.
Scars, Tribal Marks, or Other Peculiarities: None.
Toward the back of the book, we found the particulars of employment, signed and testified to by various employers. Capt. C. Hartford of Nairobi’s Government House said that Onyango performed his duties as personal boy with admirable diligence. Mr. A. G. Dickson found his
cooking excellent-he can read and write English and follows any recipes . . . apart from other things his pastries are excellent. He no long needed Onyango’s services since I am no longer on Safari. Dr. H. H. Sherry suggested that Onyango is a capable cook but the job is not big enough for him. On the other hand, Mr. Arthur W. H. Coleman East Africa Survey Group says that after a week on the job, Onyango was found to be unsuitable and certainly not worth 60 shillings per month.
We moved to the stack of letters. They were from our father, addressed to various universities in the States. There were more than thirty of them, to the presidents of Morgan State, Santa Barbara Junior College, San Francisco State.
Dear President Calhoun, one letter began. I have heard of your college from Mrs. Helen Roberts of Palo Alto, California, who is now in Nairobi here. Mrs. Roberts, knowing how much desirous I am to further my studies in the United States of America, has asked me to apply to your esteemed college for admission. I shall therefore be very much pleased if you will kindly forward me your application form and information regarding the possibility of such scholarships as you may be aware of. Attached to several letters were recommendations from Miss Elizabeth Mooney, a literacy specialist from Maryland. It is not possible to obtain Mr. O’Bama’s school transcripts, she wrote, since he has been out of school for some years. However, she expressed confidence in our father’s talents, noting that she had observed him making use of algebra and geometry. She added that there was a great need in Kenya for capable and dedicated teachers and that, given Mr. O’Bama’s desire to be of service to his country, he should be given a chance, perhaps on a one-year basis.
This was it, I thought to myself. My inheritance. I rearranged the letters in a neat stack and set them under the registry book. Then I went out into the backyard. Standing before the two graves, I felt everything around me—the cornfields, the mango tree, the sky– closing in, until I was left with only a series of mental images, Granny’s stories come to life.
I see my grandfather, standing before his father’s hut, a wiry, grim faced boy, almost ridiculous in his oversized trousers and his buttonless shirt. I watch his father turn away from him and hear his brothers laugh. I feel the heat pour down his brow, the knots forming in his limbs, the sudden jump in his heart. And as his figure turns and starts back down the road of red earth, I know that for him the path of his life is now altered irreversibly, completely.
He will have to reinvent himself in this arid, solitary place. Through force of will, he will create a life out of the scraps of an unknown world, and the memories of a world rendered obsolete.
–Excerpted from Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Hussein Obama II, published by Three Rivers Press, New York, New York, 1995. Mr. Obama is an American politician and attorney who served as the 44th president of the United States from 2009 to 2017.