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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Jo Perry

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Print Excerpt


Professor of medical physiology Dr. Owino Okong’o, another of the airlift students, succinctly summed up the airlift’s impact on Kenya in an e-mail to Mboya’s 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 in 1959.

The University of Hawaii was willing to accept Obama Sr. for reasons that also remain unclear but that were likely connected to Hawaii’s just becoming a state in 1959. He was an otherwise-attractive, well- recommended candidate who would be Hawaii’s 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 Hawaii’s first- ever African student, Obama Sr. received more than the usual freshman’s 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 couple’s 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.

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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