Searching for Obama's Story
by linda maraniss
They traveled by plane, on buses, via boat, even on foot. To places around the world, all in search of stories, human connections, and documents that would trace the roots of President Barack Obama. Washington residents Linda and David Maraniss, married for more than 40 years, took these journeys together, as they most always do when David is embarking on a new book project. Their trip to Kenya revealed snapshots of Obama’s father and his homeland through familial villages and distant relatives discovered with the help of a group they lovingly labeled “The O Team.” Their story, as they tell it, begins with a desire to “go there.”
LINDA MARANISS: You always say that your mantra for writing books is “Go there”—wherever there is. What does that mean, and how did it apply to this book on President Obama?
DAVID MARANISS: It means that to write about people, I want to walk in their footsteps, spend time in the places that shaped their lives, explore their cultural geography as an important means of deepening my understanding of them so I can convey that to readers. It involves more than just seeing things and interviewing people; it is a way of absorbing some deeper sense of place. Place is very important to my writing. It meant, for instance, that when I was about to begin a biography of Vince Lombardi [When Pride Still Mattered], I turned to you and uttered the immortal loving words, “How would you like to move to Green Bay for the winter?”
LM: My one-word response was, “Brrrrr.”
DM: But we did it, and we had a great time. We endured a northern winter so that I could write about the Ice Bowl, and we got to appreciate the one-company-town aspects of Green Bay.
LM: After several weeks there, I said I felt out of uniform and had to buy a Packers sweatshirt.
DM: So I’ve been making it up to you ever since. “Go there” for Clemente meant going to Puerto Rico; not bad. For Rome 1960 it meant going to Rome. And for Barack Obama: The Story, it meant going to Kansas, Hawaii, Kenya, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York. I went to Indonesia without you, and as much as I like my friend Mark London, who came along and took video and pictures like you do, I missed you on that one. But the Obama book took us around the world, which is an important aspect of him. He is a global person.
LM: Even our trip to Kansas was fun. I remember how we got to El Dorado on Easter Sunday and couldn’t find a place to eat, so we got some food at Walmart. I know you can get bored easily on a regular vacation somewhere; you like to combine work and play.
DM: As long as it’s the right kind of work, nothing is better. The kind of work we do for the books, I think it’s a perfect melding of work and play. We get to travel and see places and meet people that the normal tourist wouldn’t get to meet or see. The average tourist to Kenya goes on safari, and that’s about it. I know you loved seeing the orphaned little elephants and the giraffes, but still, we saw so much more: the medicine man with the cowtail wand who blessed you in Kisumu; the boy named after Barack Obama living in the mud hut in Kanyadhiang; the cattle and goat markets in all those villages out in Luoland.
LM: How hard was it to get out to those little villages in western Kenya out near Lake Victoria, where Obama’s family came from?
DM: Well, I had to endure the singing and joking of you and our C-Span friend Peter Slen in the back seat! No, that was the easy part. And thank goodness we had such a wonderful team working with us. Gideon Okusi was our driver and guide, Ken Opala was my researcher, and Beatrice Okelo was the translator. “The O Team,” we called them. And we were Odavid and Olinda and Opeter. Out there in western Kenya, near Lake Victoria, we saw things tourists don’t see. And that ride back to our hotel encampment in Kisumu after a long day in southern Nyanza province was frightening and life affirming at the same time. Dusk was falling, and the roads were clogged with goats and cows and people and broken-down cars, and Gideon was speeding along using his blinking turn signals like a horn—we just had to put our faith in him to get us back alive, and he did. It was worth the trip, and unforgettable. We came back with a stash of old photographs and fresh interviews that we could have found no other way.
LM: The O Team was so wonderful. Gideon had been a driver for The Washington Post’s Nairobi bureau chief; you found Ken as a great young journalist in Nairobi. How did you find Beatrice?
DM: In my archival research, I came across a copy of a book written in Luo, the tribal language, by Barack Obama Sr., the president’s father. I needed a translator for it, and since we were in Madison for the summer, I called the University of Wisconsin’s African languages department to see if they had any Luo speakers. Beatrice was teaching there, and it turned out she was perfect. She grew up only about five miles from the Obama homestead, in Nyang’oma Kogelo.
LM: And wasn’t it amazing that when we got to western Kenya, we visited Beatrice’s parents in her village, Asembo, and met her grandmother and saw her homestead? That was a wonderful and personal experience.
DM: I knew that Beatrice lived in a town outside the big city of Kisumu, but until I visited her homestead, I couldn’t really comprehend what that life was like, and how it would shape everyone who grew up out there, including the president’s father. A book is shaped not only by facts and documents and interviews, but also by a sensibility. Spending time at Beatrice’s house helped shape that sensibility.
LM: So how do I come in handy when we travel together?
DM: I guess you’re my nose and my photographer, but a lot more than that. We’ve been married for 43 years, for some reason; we’re best friends, even when we’re driving each other crazy. I’ve had to travel a lot in my reporting career, and I can say that it is always more fun with you at my side. It goes back to that work-and-play notion. When the two merge so much that you don’t know which is which, life is at its best. But getting back to your “coming in handy” question, the simple truth is that you are much better at making friends than I am, so wherever we go in the world, you pave the way for me. I have the personality of an observer; you immediately make people feel comfortable, whether it’s Obama’s sister, Maya, in Honolulu, or the little kids outside the Obama compound in Kanyadhiang, in western Kenya. I remember how those children lit up when you took their pictures. People just naturally gravitate to you, whether you are being a photographer or not, and it makes my job so much easier. You break the ice with people in a universal language.
LM: Who was more excited when you went to the White House to interview President Obama, you or me?
DM: Definitely you. I’m trained not to get excited about those things. I get more excited finding a document or tracking down someone that no one else has found than I do interviewing a politician or a celebrity. Finding Obama’s forgotten relatives living in a mud hut in the village of Oyugis, or stepping into the schoolroom in south Jakarta where the president sat as a first-grader—those are more thrilling to me than going to the Oval Office. President Obama is a Bears fan; I’m a Packers fan. A year earlier, the Packers beat the Bears in the NFC Championship Game and then won the Super Bowl, so the team was invited to the White House. My first words to the president before the interview were, “Charles Woodson [the Packers’ star cornerback] got here before I did, but I’m glad we both finally made it.”
photograph by getty images (Obama)
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.