By Gabriel Oguda
I finally finished Becoming Michelle Obama, and you would know because I am about to tell you what I make of this book, so turn off the gas because I wouldn’t want to be blamed for your fire alarm going off.
This is the story of a black girl living in white America who refuses to settle for less. It is also the backstory of a skinny kid with a funny name breaking barriers to become the first African American President of the United States. We are going to begin from the top, but first a warning to all those who are yet to get their hands on this book.
This book is not for speed readers. If you expect to go through the 421 pages in one sitting then you better call your friends to tell then that you’re cancelling your weekend plans. Michelle Robinson begins her story with a tour of her childhood living in the South Side of Chicago, and I can assure you you need a truck-full of patience to weather the build up; because the first mention of Barack Obama is on Page 81, and even then she does so as an inference when she is discussing her best friend Suzanne.
There is a word of advise Michelle gives to all parents before the book begins to catch fire. It is about her ambitions in life and why parents should be careful in drawing a career path for their children. Michelle says that when she was a kid and she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she always said that she wanted to be a pediatrician. “It is one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child”, Michelle says, “as if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”
Michelle gives you this impression of a woman who’s always in-charge of her own world. She knew what she wanted in boyfriends and was not afraid to clearly express it. When her new boyfriend Barack Obama finally presented himself for scrutiny to the Robinson’s, Michelle’s father said this of him; “Nice guy, but too bad he won’t last.” Fraser Robinson was just fresh from witnessing another of Michelle boyfriends being dumped at the parking lot of Princeton University when they took Michelle to report on campus. And to Michelle’s father, Barack did not measure up to Michelle’s high standards and it was just a matter of time before the axe fell on Barack too.
Of course we all know the axe didn’t swing on this son of a Kenyan father and a Hawaiian mother. They had met at a law firm in Chicago and Michelle was the one entrusted to orient him, and it was love at first sight. This is not to say that Barack was a perfect match. Michelle says there are several things about Barack that turned her off; Barack was a moving ball of chaos, his room was always in a disarray with socks and books strewn all over the place, and Barack smoked like a chimney too. But she says she fell in love with Barack’s compound brain and his peerless sense of composure. Michelle also says that Barack Obama is an expert juggler and a thoroughbred bookworm. He walks around with six or seven books which he reads simultaneously. He also says Barack is a half-chancer. “You do not dangle an opportunity in front of Barack, something that could give him a wider field of impact, and expect him to turn it down.”
Here is a reassuring message to all men who have weathered domestic storms and have been called unromantic because they do not like to cook; Barack Obama is one of us. And as you are still celebrating that screamer Team Unromantic have just scored deep into injury time, consider also that Barack and Michelle’s marriage almost collapsed had it not been for the intervention of a professional counselor. Michelle says Barack was not a fan of couples counselling’. “He was accustomed to throwing his mind at complicated problems and reasoning them out on his own”. He finally agreed to accompany Michelle to the counselor’s office after which Michelle took charge of her own happiness and “it was Barack’s job now to catch up with us.”
This book is part-inspirational-part-nostalgic. Inspirational because Michelle takes us through how to establish respect among people who think they can bully you around into subservience. There is this girl called DeeDee. Every time Michelle went out to play with her friends in the South Side hood DeeDee would make demeaning remarks about her that always made her feel inferior. So one day she goes to the hood to play, Almighty Bully DeeDee takes a dig at her again and almost instinctively Michelle throws herself at DeeDee and the fist-fight was well and truly on. They were finally separated, but Michelle says she had made her point and DeeDee never picked on her again.
It is also nostalgic because Michelle takes us through her first trip to Kenya visiting Barack’s paternal relatives. How Auma Obama’s Volkswagen broke down countless times and she had to soil her white sneakers pushing the jalopy through the mud. You should read about her first train ride from Nairobi to Kisumu on their way to Siaya. I know most of you were not yet born when the Kisumu-Nairobi passenger train was still operational, but for some of us who used the train to and from Nairobi during our younger days, this part almost made my eyes leak with nostalgia.
May I also mention that Michelle Obama comes across as this person who lives her life the best way she knows how, and tries to be less worried about what people think about her. There is this G20 Summit in London when she met the Queen of England for the first time. The golden rule with dignitaries meeting the Queen is that you are only supposed to get in contact with the Queen through a handshake. No hugs. No kisses. No gossip. No nothing. Only your hand and hers. After which you take your seat and wait for the next direction.
Michelle goes into Buckingham Palace and commits a diplomatic faux pas. She gets comfortable chatting with the Queen of England, the Queen confesses to her that the shoes she is wearing were hurting her feet and she couldn’t wait for the event to be over so that she goes to her room to be free again. Upon which Michelle affectionately lays her hand across Queen Elizabeth’s shoulder as if to hug her. Michelle says that when she touched the Queen, and instead of the Queen repelling the love, the Queen pulled herself closer to Michelle, even resting her gloved hand on Michelle’s back. She says the American press went ballistic with the images the next day, accusing her of being uncouth and lacking the standard elegance of a First Lady. But did the Queen die? Long Live The Queen!
There’s no mention of Malik Obama in this book, which denies those of you looking for controversial bones to chew. Actually, if Michelle was to ask me for an appropriate title to this book I would comfortably have called it ‘The Women Who Raised Barack’. Of all Barack’s relatives in Kenya, the only two people Michelle mentions by name are Auma Obama, Barack’s half-sister, and Mama Sarah Obama, Barack’s paternal grandmother. On the other side of Hawaii, Michelle is fond of Maya, Barack’s half-sister, and Toots, Barack’s maternal grandmother. It is important to mention here that Malia’s full name is Malia Ann Obama – Ann being Ann Durham, Barack’s mother.
Also, when Barack Obama became President, there were only five people in the Obama household who were accorded Secret Service protection, all of them were female except, of course, the President himself who was the reason why they got under that security bubble. You all know Barack’s Secret Service codename was ‘Renegade’. Michelle’s was ‘Renaissance’. Malia ‘Radiance’. Sasha ‘Rosebud’. And Michelle’s mother ‘Raindance’. Not even Craig, Michelle’s only brother, was accorded this favor. But you would be quick to add that he did not live in the White House with them. By the way, Sasha wrote in her class essay that when she went to the Vatican to meet Pope Benedict XVI, she noticed that he was missing part of his thumb. Could someone clarify what might have happened with Joseph Ratzinger’s thumb? I am asking for a friend.
I would want to end by telling you what I make of Michelle Obama, after reading this book. I think Michelle underrates the brain that she has. She comes across as a critical thinker and a polymath. Just when you almost forgot that she went to Harvard and Princeton, she comes up with a passionate project about healthy living among American kids who are alarmingly becoming obese. She knows where the problem is, the obstacles she will face, what buttons to press to get fast food companies cut down on sugar and salt content in their processed foods, and the approach to use to get Americans on her side.
She convinces White House staffers to rip apart a sizable portion of the White House lawn for the White House kitchen garden which she uses as a demonstration farm to champion for healthy eating. Check out how she manages to lobby Congress to join her in this policy fight to get America’s obesity epidemic in check. She would be a great role model to Mrs. Kenyarra and Mrs. Ruto on how to run public interest initiatives without looking like policy blondes.
My parting shot is to be found in Page 295 of this blockbuster of a write-up, and I quote;
“The president-elect, I learned, is given access to 100,000 dollars in federal funds to help with moving to and redecorating the White House. But Barack insisted that we pay for everything ourselves, using what we’d saved from his book royalties. As long as I’ve known him, he’s been this way: extra-vigilant when it comes to matters money and ethics, holding himself to a higher standard than even what’s dictated by law. Because there’s an age-old maxim among the black community in the United States:
“You’ve got to be twice as good to get half as far.”