Personal history | From Kenya to Germany

In a strong voice

Auma Obama is a German scholar, sociologist, author - and Barack Obama’s sister. She doesn’t like to discuss her famous brother, preferring to talk about her work between Germany and Kenya

A woman leans against a narrow metal beam and smiles friendly into the camera. She is wearing large creoles, a narrow necklace and a silver-grey jacket. She wears her black hair in narrow dreadlocks.

German scholar, author and keynote speaker Auma Obama

When I’m stressed, I turn up the music and dance. Dancing has always been part of my life. In Kenya, it’s just everywhere. When I think of my childhood, I see the earthy colours of my grandmother's farm near Lake Victoria. I hear the birds chirping in my ears and the wind.

I also liked going to school back then. It was a girls’ boarding school in Nairobi, so we were never told that any sport or subject was only for boys. We were allowed to do everything. At home, I was the only girl and knew when to comply. When I asked why I wasn’t allowed to do something, I was always told, “You're a girl.” That bothered me. I wanted to decide on my own life and not be determined by my gender.

I moved to Germany when I was 19. I had learned German at school and got a scholarship from the DAAD. Böll, Grass, Borchert - I read them all. As a student of German, I lived in the old town of Heidelberg. Everything was an adventure, only I missed my family. Back then, in the eighties, Germany was just right for me. That was the time of the women’s movement. I had a voice that was heard.

But I also realised that I looked different. I had to come to terms with the fact that being different was not so self-evident in Germany and that some people did not see diversity as an enrichment. It was a shock for me because Kenya is so multicultural. There, it is considered positive to bring cultures together. Let’s put it this way: I grew up. And I realised that I always want to be judged as a human being first, then as a woman and only then possibly as an African. But all in a positive sense, because I see myself as an enrichment.

“What amazed me most about Germany is that everything is heavily focused on work. In Kenya, you define yourself through your family and friends“

What amazed me most about Germany is that everything is so heavily focused on work. Everyone identifies with it. If you lose your job, you are suddenly nothing. That fascinated me so much that I wrote my PhD on it: a comparison of the work ethic in German and Kenyan literature.

Because in Kenya it’s the other way round, you define yourself through your family and friends. It may well be that someone is a doctor or a professor, but at home his older brother calls the shots - even when he's herding cows. The two countries are two extremes. But it takes balance: it is important to be a human being and at the same time to be part of the labour market.

“In Germany, I experienced that many people had a very distorted idea of Africa”

After my studies, I held seminars in adult education at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. In Germany, I experienced that many people had a very distorted idea of Africa. I wanted to show people that the image of poor Africa is not true. Africa is the richest continent in the world. Almost all the natural resources the world needs come from there.

We talked about topics like “development aid” and the “Third World” - that's what it was called back then. I fought against these terms. I wanted to convince people to finally talk to us on an equal footing.

Because Africa is being plundered through the back door, while people are told again and again: “You are poor, you can’t do anything without our help.” In my later work with Care International in Kenya, I wanted to learn from those who do this supposed development aid. It didn’t work for me, but it got me thinking about how to do better.

“We tell the children: ‘There is nothing you cannot do. You just have to learn to believe in yourself’”

To stay true to my cause, I started the Sauti Kuu Foundation, which means “Strong Voice” in Kiswahili. We work with children and young people from four to 25 years old, but always involve the whole family. We have three centres in Kenya where we offer activities. By the way, it is only a myth that my brother Barack stole his famous slogan “Yes, we can” from my foundation work. It’s a common phrase all over the world, only it became better known through my brother’s work.

At Sauti Kuu, we have two main slogans: “Use what you have to get what you need” - this is aimed at parents and grandparents. We communicate how to use the locally available resources so that the basic needs of the children are met. The second slogan is “You are your future” and is aimed at the children.

By this we mean: There is nothing you cannot do. You just have to learn to believe in yourself. Sport helps. In sport, children can be loud, cheer, work as a team. We also have an open stage where all kinds of things are performed: Dance, theatre, singing. The children love it.

I will also dance on a stage soon, because I’m taking part in the German TV show “Let’s dance!”. I am looking forward to sharing my love of dancing and my zest for life.

As told to Gundula Haage
Translated by Jess Smee