Professor of medical physiology Dr. Owino Okongo, another of
the airlift students, succinctly summed up the airlifts impact on
Kenya in an e-mail to Mboyas widow, Pamela: The airlifts provided
manpower at the time of independence, demonstrated the inadequate
nature of the then Kenyan education system, changed perceptions
which the British were spreading about the quality of American
education . . . and transformed the elite culture of Kenyans from the
British model to the American model in which performance is more
important than where you went to school.
In 1959, all of this lay in the future as a bright promise. Since 1956,
the Mboya-Scheinman program had brought to the United States a
handful of individuals at a time. But for the academic year that would
begin in September 1959, the Kenyan community knew, Mboya and
his associates in Nairobi were expanding the program to assist
eighty- one individuals the number of passengers that could fit on a single chartered plane.
This information electrified Obama Sr., and he applied to more
than thirty U.S. colleges, many of which were historically black or
were those in the San Francisco area that were recommended by Mrs.
Roberts. Most were unable to accept him. The reasons remain unclear,
but it may have been because he did not complete his secondary
education at a school, although he had taken correspondence courses,
or because he did not yet have a Cambridge A-Level certificate, the
British diploma that could only be obtained after passing a rigid
national examination, although according to Otunnu he did have a
lesser O-Level certificate, as did most of the other candidates for
airlift seats in 1959. Obama appears not to have applied for any advanced
schooling in the USSR or in the Communist satellite countries;
Oginga Odinga, also a patron of his, was recruiting for such schools
The University of Hawaii was willing to accept Obama Sr. for
reasons that also remain unclear but that were likely connected to Hawaiis
just becoming a state in 1959. He was an otherwise-attractive,
well- recommended candidate who would be Hawaiis first- ever African
student, a circumstance that intrigued him. As far as can be
determined from incomplete records, Mrs. Roberts and Miss Mooney
paid his fare to Hawaii and provided a partial scholarship. Mboya,
while unable to transport the twenty-three-year-old, did put him on
the AASF list to receive one of the handful of scholarships contributed
by the former baseball star Jackie Robinson, which the Scheinman
foundation was administering, and encouraged him to look to
the AASF for further help if needed, which he later did.
As the University of Hawaiis first- ever African student, Obama
Sr. received more than the usual freshmans share of attention from
the campus press. He pursued courses in economics and world affairs,
became the leader of the International Student Association,
and graduated at the top of his class in three years. U.S. Representative
Neil Abercrombie knew him at the university, and described
him in those years as self- involved, egotistical, vivid but entirely
dedicated to Africa, to freedom and justice. Obama Sr. was brilliant
and always had an opinion, Abercrombie said in a recent interview,
and always had the information to back it up.
Early during Obama Sr.s Hawaii years, he met, in a Russian class,
the seventeen-year-old Ann Dunham, an anthropology student,
daughter of a local family originally from Kansas. They married in
1961, and the couples only child, Barack Hussein Obama, Jr., was
born later that year.
Onyango threatened his son, by mail, with revocation of his
student visa for marrying a white woman who, Onyango predicted,
would not want to return to Kenya with Barack, but the threat was
not carried out. Obama Sr. continued at the University of Hawaii,
and the AASF continued to send him checks, in increments of $50 or
$150 for expenses, $243 for tuition. He was mostly supported by
Mooney, who in 1960 had married an expatriate American, Elmer
Kirk, and shortly moved with her husband back to the United States.
Mboya forwarded letters written by Obama Sr.s Kenyan wife, which
she had handed to Mboya in Nairobi, along with his own notes urging
Obama to get back in touch with his Kenyan family.
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