The Kenyan bowed his head as his captors opened the prison cell door to deliver another brutal whipping–a punishment meted out after he was accused of taking part in the independence movement against the British colonial authorities.
The man had been working as a cook for a British Army officer. And his name? Hussein Onyango Obama–President Barack Obama’s paternal grandfather.
He had been arrested in 1949 and jailed for two years in a high-security prison. There, according to his family, he was subjected to horrific violence. They say British soldiers used torture in an effort to get him to reveal rebel secrets.
‘The African warders were instructed by the white soldiers to whip him every morning and evening till he repented,’ says Sarah Onyango, Hussein Onyango’s third wife, and the woman President Obama calls ‘Granny Sarah’.
Mrs Onyango, now 89, says ‘white soldiers’ visited the prison every two or three days to carry out ‘disciplinary action’ on the inmates in, what she terms, ‘the British torture chambers’.
She details awful abuse. ‘They would squeeze his private parts (testicles) with parallel metallic rods. They also pierced his nails and buttocks with a sharp pin, with his hands and legs tied together with his head facing down,’ she says.
‘There were beatings and torture. That was the time we realised that the British were actually not friends but, instead, enemies. My husband had worked so diligently for them, only to be arrested and detained. He called the British “beasts and traitors in human skin”.’
This week, she told the Mail in an exclusive interview that she believes that learning of the torture meted out to his grandfather turned her grandson, the U.S. President, against Britain. Sitting under a mango tree in the garden of her modest home in Kogelo village, Kenya, surrounded by the family’s chickens, cows and goat, she recalls telling Barack Obama his family history on his first visit to Kenya in 1988.
‘I narrated the whole story to Barack one evening to help him understand our family’s past. He wasn’t amused at all. He expressed quite a lot of concern about why the British had to punish his grandfather “on his own soil”.
‘He said the whole act sounded barbaric. He wondered why the British never respected African culture. The arrest, he said, was outrageous.’ Shockingly, she adds: ‘Generally, my grandson has never believed the British do anything for a common good, rather than their selfish interests.’
Did British soldiers really torture President Obama’s grandfather? As we will see, some elements of this highly emotive story have been twisted through the passage of time.
But whatever the truth, these bitter tales form part of the Obama family folklore, and seem to have left the U.S. President with a vehemently anti-British outlook.
So has Obama’s memory of his grandfather’s treatment influenced his aggressive reaction to BP over its handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill?
The Government has become increasingly concerned by Obama’s anti-British rhetoric. For example, he has often referred to the global company as ‘British Petroleum’, although it changed its name to BP more than a decade ago, and even compared the disaster to 9/11.
But this is not the first time he has paid little heed to the so-called Special Relationship. When he entered the Oval office, he immediately returned a bust of Winston Churchill that was on loan from Britain.
And during the recent stand-off between Britain and Argentina over oil rights around the Falkland Islands, America was less than supportive.
So what exactly happened in that prison cell some 60 years ago, and just how has it shaped the American President’s view of Britain?
In order to answer that question, we need to go back to the years before the bloody Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.
The British colonial presence in Kenya formally began in 1895, when white settlers were given huge tracts of rich farmland. Kenya became a British colony in 1920.
Settlers arrived in increasing numbers as tales of Kenya’s cocktail hour ‘Happy Valley’ lifestyle reached British shores. It was a time of dispossession and violence for the black population. Calls for Kenyan independence grew–led by the anticolonial party Mau Mau, which is said to mean ‘get out, get out’.
In 1952, the British declared a State of Emergency after a spate of strikes and violent attacks. Up to 80,000 Mau Mau supporters were arrested in one month alone, and tens of thousands were killed.
Hussein Obama served with the British Army in Burma, Ceylon and Arabia during World War II. Like many veterans, he returned to Africa hoping to win freedom from colonial rule.
A Muslim member of the Luo tribe from western Kenya, he joined the Kikuyu tribesmen leading the Mau Mau rebellion.
‘He did not like the way British soldiers and colonialists were treating Africans, especially members of an organisation called the Kikuyu Central Association, whose members were believed to be secretly taking oaths, promising to kill the white settlers and colonialists,’ says Mrs Onyango.
In his book, Dreams From My Father, written when he was 33, President Obama implies that his grandfather was not directly involved in the uprising. His step-grandmother–who attended the President’s inauguration in Washington DC–contradicts him.
She says: ‘His job as cook to a British officer made him a useful informer for the secret “oathing” movement which would later form the Mau Mau rebellion.’
The oaths to kill white settlers were used by Mau Mau as part of their initiation ceremony. It is believed Hussein Obama was tried in a magistrates’ court on charges of political sedition or membership of an illegal organisation, but the records have not survived.
Professor David Anderson, director of the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, says: ‘To arrest a Luo ex-soldier, who must have been a senior figure in the community, is pretty serious. They must have had some damn good evidence.’
Mrs Onyango believes her late husband was denounced to the authorities by his white employer, or a neighbour with whom he had a feud.
An outspoken man, it seems Obama accused this official of collecting excessive taxes and pocketing the money.
According to Mrs Onyango, her husband was arrested by two soldiers, and taken to Kamiti prison, the national maximum-security prison outside Nairobi. ‘This was like a death camp because some detainees died while being tortured,’ says Mrs Onyango. ‘We were not allowed to see him, not even to take him food.’
She says her husband was told that he would be killed or maimed unless he confessed what he knew. He was beaten until he promised ‘never to rejoin any groups opposed to the white man’s rule’.
She says: ‘The daily whipping was done by the black African warders, but the torture and other severe beatings were being carried out by the white British soldiers themselves.’
Even after he had repented, the physical abuse allegedly continued. Mrs Onyango says some of her husband’s fellow prisoners were beaten to death with clubs.
She says: ‘All his fellow captives who were arrested attempting to oppose the white man’s rule were tortured, and some of them even died while in custody. My late husband was lucky to have left Kamiti prison alive.’
Dressed in flowing green African robes and a headscarf, Mrs Onyango became visibly upset when remembering the trauma of those years.
She told the Mail: ‘His arrest in 1949 was a real turning point in my life. At that time, the British soldiers were famous for maiming and killing African captives, especially those who were linked to secret groups that wanted the white man to go back home to their country.
‘So when he was arrested, I knew life had come to an end for me and my family. For two years, we couldn’t see him nor hear from him.’
She adds: ‘Since he was the breadwinner of the family, his arrest was not just about him. It put to a near halt the lives of all those who depended on him. Life was very difficult. We spent long nights without food, not even paraffin to light our lantern lamps. Our lives were full of darkness in every sphere.’
Perhaps it is inevitable, in a family story re-told many years after it took place, that some elements of Hussein Obama’s tale appear hazy.
But Mrs Onyango describes one element of her husband’s ‘torture’ which is open to interpretation. She says: ‘The white soldiers would spray his body with an itching chemical. This would make him scratch his body till it bled.’
However, it is more likely that Mr Onyango was simply being treated for body lice with a chemical delousing treatment commonly used on prisoners.
Certainly, detention camps were set up by the British authorities during the uprising. They have been described by some historians as ‘Kenya’s Gulag’.
At the height of the rebellion, an estimated 71,000 Kenyans were held in prison camps. The vast majority were never convicted in court.
Several hundred letters from camp inmates survive in the Kenyan National Archives testify to appalling camp conditions, forced labour, torture and starvation.
Mr Onyango was in his mid-50s when he was arrested, and according to his widow, his imprisonment left him mentally scarred and prematurely aged. She says he bore the physical marks of torture to his grave.
In his memoir, Barack Obama described his grandfather’s return to the family’s village. ‘When he returned, he was very thin and dirty.
He had difficulty walking, and his head was full of lice.’
‘Granny Sarah’ told him: ‘He was so ashamed, he refused to enter his house or tell us what had happened.
Instead, he called me to boil him water and bring him one of his razors. He shaved off his hair, and I had to help him bathe for a very long time.’
For some time, he was too traumatised to speak about his experiences. Mrs Onyango told her grandson: ‘From that day on, I saw that he was now an old man.’ This week she told us: ‘My husband rarely spoke about the British and colonial rule after his arrest. All I know is that he hated them.
‘After serving the British very diligently, they turned him into enemy number one.
‘His awful tales of his experiences at the British torture chambers always moved his emotions. He wondered why the British never respected African culture.
‘Elders and old people in Luo and many tribes in Kenya are usually seen as the final leadership in the society and are thus immune to any punishment. Arresting an old man was an extreme violation of our culture. Barack believes the arrest was outrageous. He said the colonialists only came to maim our people and take away our resources.
The old man would shed tears at the mention of the British and colonial rule. He simply hated them.’
Barack Obama remains close to his step-grandmother–the pair talked late last week, when his Vice-President, Joe Biden, was in Kenya. Mama Sarah, as she is known locally, says the President telephoned her to find out how Kenyans had reacted to his decision to send his principal assistant, rather that making the trip to Kenya himself.
Asked whether she believes that Obama’s view of Britain has been influenced by the family history, she says: ‘Yes–because President Obama is a strong believer in family units.
‘He didn’t shy away from saying the British wronged my family by arresting my husband. President Obama believes perhaps we could have been better off had my husband not been arrested.
‘I don’t think his tough statements on the oil spill are influenced by past family experiences with the British authorities.
‘He is simply a perfectionist who believes people must be made to pay for their mistakes. He is doing what is expected of him by his electorate.’
She adds: ‘I am personally not angry at the British, but I strongly feel they must be made to pay for the tortures and atrocities they committed, otherwise history will judge them harshly.’
Mr Onyango, who died in 1975 at the age of 80, held a lifelong grudge against the British for the way he had been treated, yet he was doubtful that the independence movement would succeed.
‘How can the African defeat the white man,’ he told his son, the future President’s father, ‘when he cannot even make his own bicycle?’
His son and grandson went on to prove him wrong. Barack Obama Senior, the President’s father, won a prestigious scholarship to the University of Hawaii in 1959, where he met President Obama’s white mother.
The programme was sponsored by John F. Kennedy to train young Kenyans to rule their own country. The nation became independent in 1963.
Having abandoned his young wife and child in Hawaii, Obama’s father returned to Kenya–but betrayed his early promise, sliding into alcoholism. He was killed in a car crash in 1982.
The young future U.S. President was brought up in Hawaii and Indonesia.
In his best-selling memoir, he chronicles his emotive journey to find his roots in Kenya back in 1988.
He describes flying from Heathrow Airport to Nairobi, sitting next to a young Englishman–who gave him his own disparaging view on Africa’s problems.
He recalls: ‘Beside me the young Brit was snoring softly now, his glasses askew on his fin-shaped nose. Was I angry at him? I wondered.’
Arriving in Kenya, he heard at Granny Sarah’s knee the family folklore, and the story of his grandfather’s humiliation at the hands of the British.
What’s clear is that this episode, and Britain’s colonial rule, has left a deep scar on the Obama family.