Search the Anthropology Review Database

(cover picture) Magierski, Tomasz
2009 My Father the Luo. New York: Filmakers Library.

Notes: DVD, 40 minutes
Reviewed 5 Feb 2011 by:
Jack David Eller <david.eller@ccd.edu>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
Subject
Keywords:
Ndolo, Roma
Obama, Barack
Presidents - United States - Biography
African American politicians - Biography
Racially mixed people - United States - Biography
Luo (Kenyan and Tanzanian people) - Kenya - Social life and customs
Group identity - Kenya

ABSTRACT:    This charming short film follows a half-Kenyan, half-Polish woman back to her roots in Kenya, treading the same path as a much more famous personage, Barack Obama.



In the modern globalized world we are probably all searching for our home, and in that world the constituent parts of our home—if it can be reconstituted at all—are probably far-flung. This is true for me—born in West Virginia, raised in upstate New York, a resident of Australia for two years, and currently inhabiting Denver—but it is even more true for the two central characters of this lovely little film, Roma Ndolo and Barack Obama.

What is perhaps even stranger than the fractured nature of contemporary identity is the links between our individual identity and that of other individuals whose life-paths have crossed ours. Ndolo is, like Obama, a half-Kenyan and half-Western (her mother was Polish); even more, her Kenyan family lived and lives not far from Obama’s. So the film opens with Obama’s voice speaking about his Kenyan father while scenes of Kenya flow by.

Ndolo’s first stop in the country is the University of Nairobi, where she talks to a scholar who is also a member of Luo council of elders. As he explains, by Luo kinship reckoning (as well as by most anyone’s sense), Obama is a son of Kenya as well as an American. To learn more about Obama’s heritage, Ndolo travels to the family village of Obama’s father, noting rather ironically the violence after the recent Kenyan elections. She drops in on her own grandmother, whom she has not seen in almost two decades. In another poetic irony, she and her kin watch the Democratic party convention, at which Obama was nominated to run for president, on television. But her own story is important too, and the film spends several minutes with Ndolo and her kin as they look at family photos and discuss her father, who died in Poland when she was young.

Thus the film continues to interweave the two individuals, Obama and Ndolo, as well as contemporary Kenya. We hear Obama’s words as we view scenes of daily life in Kenya. A pivotal moment for the locals was Obama’s visit in 2006 when he was a U.S. senator; the local people took then and take take pride and hope in Obama and the promise of the United States. A village school was renamed after him, and the movie shows children singing for Obama back in 2006.

About two-thirds of the way through the piece, Ndolo arrives at Obama’s Kenyan family’s home. His grandmother and half-sister talk about Obama’s curiosity regarding his own past and identity—a curiosity that is only a bit more exquisite and world-historical than that of any modern global citizen. Finally, tying the entire journey together, Ndolo comes to her own family’s home. (Interestingly, her father had been a cultural anthropologist in Europe.) In a conclusive symbolic flourish, Ndolo narrates her own experience at the grave site of her father with an excerpt from Obama’s memoire . And when the local children come out to greet her, they call her a white person! It is thought-provoking that the same person—Ndolo or Obama—would be conceived of as black in the white West and white in black Africa. Perhaps that is as much the theme of the film as any other.

Level/Use: Suitable for high school classes and for college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of race and ethnicity, African studies, and American studies, as well as general audiences.