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I’m searching for Africa still and I have been ever since I returned from my three week trip in December 2011. Where before my trip I had no desire to learn about this dark continent, not to mention actually visit it, now I am fascinated with all things African, especially the unknown, deep well of African history in all its diversity, the culture and the stories of Africans past and present, ignored or long buried in those extreme, rich, beautiful and striking landscapes.
With that in mind, I picked up The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs off the Sonoma County library shelf not because of Barack Sr.’s famous son, President Barack Obama Jr., and not because my novel, Dreamers, ends with Barack Obama receiving the Democratic Nomination for President, but because I hoped this book would speak to me of the mystery that is Africa.
Jacob’s biography is subtitled, “The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father”. That does truly describe the “other”, senior Barack Obama. You can see it from his picture on the hardback cover: wide, inviting smile, pipe between his teeth, the stylish ’50s haircut, those black-rimmed glasses accentuating his well-modeled face with high cheekbones, the glasses that reflect light seemingly emanating from the man himself.
“Baraka” means “Blessing” in Arabic. Barack Obama’s ecstatic photo embodies the openhearted exuberance of the people I met while in South Africa last December in the mall at Midland, the market in Roosboom, the bar in Ladysmith, and the caves at the Cradle of Humankind. I will not forget how their faces lit up when I mentioned I was from the United States, how they hugged me and how I loved it. I felt blessed like that photo of Barack on the book cover.
For a native boy from Africa growing up in the 1940s, Barak Obama Sr. achieved the nearly impossible and he knew it better than anyone else. Shakespeare’s Othello had his jealousy, Sophocles’ Oedipus his blindness. The other Obama had great flaws too. He couldn’t get past his potential and actualize it. But still, what a powerful, inspiring struggle he experienced growing up in Kenya, leaving for America and then returning unwillingly to Kenya as the country finally achieved its independence from British colonial rule. So much was happening to Africa then.
In some ways, The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs reads like a flawed Greek tragedy. In a tragedy, a great person experiences the reversal of fortune caused by an inevitable and unforeseen mistake, a flaw in the person him or herself. Witnessing this, the audience experiences a catharsis, a kind of freedom and satisfaction.
I did experienced a kind of catharsis after reading this book. And I’m further along in my search for Africa. One thing I learned is that being fascinated with another culture doesn’t mean you could live in it.
You can find out more about The Other Barack in my book review.