Excerpt of Airlift to America by Tom Shachtman
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Barack Obama, Sr., was brilliant, rebellious, charming from an
early age, and always difficult to handle. He would take many days
off from classes, then cram for exams and come out with the highest
marks. Eventually, his antics got him expelled from high school.
Onyango then sent his son to the port city of Mombasa to work as a
clerk for an Asian friend; Barack left that job and found another, at a
lower salary. He drifted into the orbit of the Kenyatta- led political
party at around the time that emergency regulations were promulgated
in 1952 in reaction to the Mau Mau rebellion, and was briefly
jailed. He married, fathered two children, and made a connection
with Mboya, then a rising union official, and with another aspiring
political Luo, Oginga Odinga, who was known as a committed socialist.
Obama also came to the attention of two American women
working in Kenya, Mrs. Helen Roberts of Palo Alto and Miss Elizabeth
Mooney of Mary land, a literacy specialist. They recognized his
intellect and thirst for further education and helped him take correspondence
courses, to which for the fi rst time he applied his full
efforts and skills.
According to Olara Otunnu, an advocate for children in armed
conflicts and a former undersecretary-general of the UN, who as
president of the student body at Makerere University in Uganda met
Obama then, the Kenyan was brilliant, well read, brimming with
confidence. Obama Sr., Otunnu remembers, gushed with enthusiasm
for going to the United States, inspired by Tom Mboyas efforts
to garner the first students and scholarships for the 1959 airlift. Prior
to this most of the few Kenyans who had gone out of the country for
their higher education had attended Makerere or a school in Great
Britain. Attending colleges in the United States had not been a goal
because, Otunnu recalls, all roads led to the U.K., and if you received a degree in the U.S. you had to be recertified in Kenya. That
was the level of prejudice against the U.S., the British colonial mentality. What was good and serious was the U.K., what was frivolous, fluffy, was the U.S.
But Mboya thought differently about U.S. colleges, especially for
the purpose of educating Kenyans for in dependence from Great
Britain, and had been working since 1956 with a white American industrialist,
William X. Scheinman, and with a few other Americans,
white and black, to send Kenyan students to the United States. By
privately transporting promising students who on their own or
through Mboyas intervention had won scholarships to American
universities, the Scheinman-Mboya group was doing several radical
things. They were circumventing the British colonial education system,
which rewarded only a handful of Kenyans each year with
scholarships to study in Great Britain; they were finessing the U.S.
foreign- student establishment, which only accepted Africans from
already- independent nations; and they were attempting to bring
over large groups rather than a few elite students. Scheinman had
formed a nonprofit entity, the African American Students Foundation
(AASF), for this purpose. The goal was to create a cadre of well-trained
young people who would be available to staff the government
and the educational system when Kenya gained its independence.
Between 1959 and 1963, the AASF airlifts would bring to the
United States nearly eight hundred East African students, mostly
Kenyans but also some from Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Uganda,
and Northern and Southern Rhodesia, to take up scholarships at
dozens of colleges and some high schools. The airlift generation
would achieve a remarkable record of accomplishment. Upon returning
home, they would become the founding brothers and sisters of
their countries. For the next quarter century they would make up
half of Kenyas parliaments and account for many of its cabinet ministers
and even more of its high- level civil servants, in addition to
staffing the professorships and deanships of its nascent universities,
starting medical clinics and schools, growing multimillion- dollar businesses,
and leading international environmental programs. Among
the airlift graduates would be Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004
Nobel Peace Prize.
Excerpted from Airlift to America
by Tom Shachtman. Copyright © 2009 by Tom Shachtman.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.