Barack Obama: An Alternate Environmental Biography & History?

If Barack Obama had been born in Kenya and not the United States then his environmental biography would certainly have been different. George Obama, Barack’s brother, grew up in Kenya. George’s biography gave me some insight into an alternate environmental history, what might have been if President Obama’s path had been a different one in Africa. The president’s relationship with and story about the environment would have been different. Or would it have been?

Consider George Obama’s biography written with Damien Lewis titled Homeland: An Extraordinary Story of Hope and Survival (2010).

Perhaps Barack Obama, the older of the two brothers, calls many places homeland including his birthplace Hawaii in the United States. Like many a child of an immigrant, Kenya is Mr. Obama’s ancestral homeland, the birthplace of his father.

If Barack had been born in Kenya his experiences might have paralleled George’s life. The president would have visited and perhaps even lived with the Luo, his people, his cultural group in Kenya. Much like George, a young Barack might have visited  his grandfather’s compound filled with family in rural Kenya.

The family supported themselves herding livestock including cattle. (Obama, 4) The Obamas were also farmers. Their grandfather “owned land  . . . that was used for rice growing. The rice fields were rain-fed, as opposed to irrigated. If the main April-June rains failed, the young plants would wither and die in the fields, and there would be no crop that year.” (Obama, 4-5)

George, who spent much of his time in Nairobi, remembers nature as a child visiting the family compound:

At the start of the rainy April season the wind would blow in from the bush in a sudden, raging storm. The dry fronds on the palm trees clashing together sounded like an army of children fighting with wooden swords. Then you knew that rain was on the way, and you had no more than ten minutes to get under cover. As a wall of gray clouds rushed in from the far horizon, powerful gusts knocked down coconuts from the palms and dead branches from the trees. (Obama, 5)

Barack Obama in Kenya, 2006

Now here is some whimsy on my part: although Barack did not grow up in Kenya, his DNA influenced his environmental thought and actions in reality, in the real world. In 1987, George still a child met Barack already an adult. They met on a Nairobi playground. Barack had visited Kenya, his homeland. He returned again in 2006.

Today, President Obama is the first green and black president. In his 2011 State of the Union Address, he highlighted that California Institute of Technology was developing “a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars.” (2011 State of the Union Address, NPR transcript) This is part of federal green initiatives in and for the United States and the world.

As I sit here in my home, miles away from the president and the White House, even more miles away from Kenya, I dream a global dream that embraces Barack Obama a descendant of Kenyans influenced by his rural origins there; at the same time, he is driven to implement environmental innovation and initiatives as an American, as the President of the United States.

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