Excerpt from Airlift to America by Tom Shachtman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Airlift to America

How Barack Obama, Sr., John F. Kennedy, Tom Mboya, and 800 East African Students Changed Their World and Ours

by Tom Shachtman

Airlift to America
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  • Published:
    Sep 2009, 288 pages

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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 Mboya’s 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 Mboya’s 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 Kenya’s 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.

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