The Frustrations of Big Manitude
November 26, 2008, 01:53 PM
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Theodore Dalrymple once pointed out that being a Big Man in Africa isn't as sweet a deal as you might think.

Imagine you get out of school, get your first decent job, and your own apartment. You decide to celebrate by inviting four relatives to your place for Thanksgiving Dinner. A year later, you get a promotion so you start thinking about where you'll take your first vacation. But on Thanksgiving Day, instead of just four relatives showing up, eight show up. You mention to your nearest and dearest that you only bought enough food for four guests. They say in loud voices for the more distant relatives to hear, "Oh, we are so proud you are getting to be a Big Man and have offered to go to the store to buy more food!"

And so it goes. Next year it's 16 relatives, and a half dozen of them need to crash at your place and need you to drive them to the airport. You try to hint to your mom that it's getting to be a little much, but she makes it clear that any slacking on your part would bring shame to all your loved ones. So, each year you get a promotion and the number of relatives you must feed and entertain and find jobs for and bail out of jail and generally subsidize keeps growing with every increase in your income.

It's kind of like what Anthony Quinn says as Auda Bin Tayi in "Lawrence of Arabia:"

I carry twenty-three great wounds, all got in battle. Seventy-five men have I killed with my own hands in battle. I scatter, I burn my enemies' tents. I take away their flocks and herds. The Turks pay me a golden treasure, yet I am poor! Because I am a river to my people!
Here's Edmund Sanders in the LA Times on the multitudinous Obamas:
Reporting from Nyangoma-Kogelo, Kenya – For about 400 people in western Kenya who can call the next U.S. president "part of the family," being an Obama has a whole new meaning.

The modest family compound here has been inundated by hordes of visitors, from reporters and local politicians to ordinary Kenyans looking for help in getting U.S. visas, scholarships, jobs or cash. Family matriarch Sarah Onyango, step-grandmother of President-elect Barack Obama, is treated like a rock star wherever she goes.

The Kenyan government, which once ostracized Obama's father, is falling over itself to attend to the family. There's a new road, 24-hour police security and an electricity line — the first in the village. It was installed hours after U.S. election results were announced, bypassing neighbors who have been waiting years for a connection.

"Dealing with all this," Said Obama, the president-elect's uncle, said with a sigh, "it's been like a full-time job."

In U.S. politics, presidential relatives are always something of a wild card, often the subject of curiosity or controversy. But the Obamas of Kenya promise to be a First Family like none America has seen.

Here in sleepy Nyangoma-Kogelo, the Obamas are widely admired as the richest family in a town of about 2,000, successful farmers who have always helped neighbors in need, and flirted with the political elite when Obama's Harvard-educated father rose to a prominent government post.

But while they're at the top of the social ladder at home, the international spotlight has cast the family in an unfamiliar role: as poor relations who suddenly appear to have hit it big. Overnight, they've gone from Kennedys to Clampetts.

It's true, by U.S. standards many of the family members are relatively poor, living in mud-brick homes with no running water or, until recently, electricity. A few have tried to cash in on Obama's success by selling their stories. ...

Onyango, who until the recent flurry of attention still worked in the fields tending her crops, said she hoped life would return to normal. "We don't feel that we should or ought to be treated differently," she said....

For the family, of course, there have also been other fringe benefits to their fame. In addition to the security and infrastructure improvements, family members are fielding various offers for jobs, partnerships and endorsement deals.

Said Obama, who struggled for more than a decade amid Kenya's chronic unemployment to find full-time work, admits he probably owes his current job as a mechanic at a factory co-owned by the prime minister's family to his relationship with Obama.

"The Obama name is now a powerful key to open doors," he said. "But the family is wary. I don't want to exploit my relationship with Barack."

Other family members have been more assertive. Malik Obama, the eldest half-brother, has asked reporters seeking interviews to first make donations to his "Barack H. Obama Foundation," which he said funds school uniforms and community projects.

When the election results were announced, Malik Obama held a separate news conference after being nudged out of the family's official briefing.

"The children used to be close," said Charles Oluoch, a cousin. "But with the election, everyone is fighting to be closest to the president." ...

In a 2006 interview with The Times, Obama acknowledged the expectations of his large family in Kenya, some of whom he has never met.

"Everyone in the village feels related," he said. "Some family members are very close; others I feel less close to."

Oluoch, who lives with about 200 other Obamas in a second ancestral village 100 miles away called Kobama, complained that the Kogelo wing is getting all the attention and investment. In Kobama, they recently spruced up the gravestone of Obama's great-grandfather and are preserving a mud hut "where the president once slept" as a potential tourist attraction.

He said the Obamas have a proud history of producing prosperous leaders with a knack for breaking down racial barriers.

Obama's grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama befriended white settlers when others feared the strangers as "unclean." After serving with the British army in Tanzania during World War I, he learned English, adopted Western dress and eventually worked as a cook in colonialists' homes.

"At first, everyone in the village feared him, but eventually they came to admire him because he could talk to a white person," said Alfred Obama, 76, a nephew of Onyango who lives in Kobama.

Over the years, he introduced many European customs to the village, such as eating on plates with utensils, planting trees, deep-frying food and maintaining an immaculate home.

Although Onyango was standoffish, his second wife, Sarah, was outgoing and down-to-earth. ...

On trips home to his village, usually in a fancy car, Obama Sr. always brought cabbages and potatoes for every household. He found government jobs for numerous villagers.

But the family's political rise was short-lived. By the early 1970s, the elder Obama's tendency to criticize his superiors and a worsening alcohol problem led to a career spiral that left him dejected and broke. As a Luo, he found himself the victim of rising tribalism as rival Kikuyus seized control of the government.

Old friends abandoned him. In 1982, Obama ran his car off the road after a night of drinking and was killed. He was 46.

Sarah Onyango worried about the family's future.

"She said, 'Now that this has happened to our son, what will happen us?'" according to Ndalo, the former housekeeper. "The family was very bitter about the way they were treated."

Obama's election brought a sense of vindication, friends and family members say, particularly as government officials have made the trek down the dirt road to the Obama compound to pay their respects. President Mwai Kibaki declared a national holiday in Obama's honor.

"The death was a great blow to the Obamas," Oluoch, the cousin, said. "We had no one else to be proud of. But 26 years later, God gave us another one."