Michelle Was Still Trying to Discover Herself While in Kenya. Granny Sarah’s Ugali and Approval Made Her Feel Special


Michelle Obama’s father did not have much of an education to guarantee him a hefty pay. He had big dreams of becoming an artist someday, but things did not work out as he expected and that dream became an illusion.  Instead of paying for his college fees, Michelle’s father used his wages to pay for his younger brother’s pursuit of architecture.

Mr. Robinson-Michelle’s father-worked hard every day to provide for his family. He loved his family made up of a wife and two children like every (ordinary and logical) man would.   Perhaps to  make up for his financial shortcomings and demonstrate to his children what a good education yields, he would drive  his daughter Michelle and his son Craig in his Buick through a posh neighborhood.  All the two children could do was stare. And admire.

In the book “Becoming,” Michell Obama describes her father as a “man who never complained about small big things…”

Despite this description that portrays Mr. Robinson as man a woman would be content to love, Michelle’s mother admitted to her daughter that time and again she entertained the idea of leaving her husband. It may have been a case of no romance without finance. Whatever the case, Mrs Robinson had this active fantasy that whenever she pondered about it, “it felt healthy and energizing.”

Michelle, perhaps as a result of her mother’s bold admission, grew with apprehension of the institution of marriage and the longevity thereto. She knew that marriage was not a walk in the park, that in the union both partners must put in hard work. This reality  hit  home for Michelle when her brother Craig’s marriage came to an end.

When Michelle eventually said “YES!” to Obama’s engagement, she was still at the point of an   ‘undiscovered self.’ She was trying to figure out who she was and what she wanted to do in life. Adding to the prevailing convolution, her best friend Suzanne had recently died of cancer. Her father, Mr. Robinson had succumbed to a heart attack.  She was not doing well financially having taken a hefty pay cut (from $120,000 a year to $60,000 a year) to work with her new found friend Valerie Jarret for the Local government. And now here she was engaged to Barack Obama. Barack, Michelle admits, was making peanuts and had to juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet.

This is best captured by the reasoning  Michelle provides on why she started journaling:

“One,  I feel very confused about where I want my life to go. What kind of person do I want to be. How do I want to contribute to the world.

Two, I am getting very serious in my relationship with Barack and I feel that I need to get a better handle of myself. “

In reading Becoming, the  impression I get is that the trip to Nairobi with Barack, which happened around the period I described as her ‘undiscovered self,” was supposed to be Michelle’s ‘AHA moment”-where she would let go all her worries and savor the moment with the love of her life. In Michelle’s words:

“..I think I arrived (in Nairobi) naively believing I would feel some visceral connection to the continent I had grown up thinking of as some sort of mythic motherland, as if going there would bestow on me some feeling of completeness. “

Only that the Nairobi trip exacerbated her worries about marriage. And while her mental sheets were occupied on what may and may not be, Obama was feeling at home, having been to Kenya before. Earlier while on a trip to Hawaii, Michelle offers a glimpse of Obama’s behavior when he is at an environment that is home:

“(in Hawaii)….the laid back part of him flourished. He was at home……at home where he didn’t feel he needed to prove anything to anyone.”

Did Michelle experience this version of Obama in Kenya? Most likely. My assumption is that  Obama had made certain promises to Michelle, which upon landing in Kenya became just that-promises. Now add the effects of jet lag and a sore throat to the simmering divergence of interests, and you see Michelle becoming easily irritated and angry at Barack. It is not strange that while in Kenya, Michelle and Obama would fight. Silly fights. She notes in her journal:

“I am so angry at Barack. I do not think we have something in common…”

Years later, Michelle would note this about marriage:

“Even a happy marriage can be a vexation….it is a contract best renewed, quietly and privately-even alone.

All told, Michelle had a great time in Kenya. She notes the following:

Obama and Michelle in Kenya

“I remember feeling awed by the scope of land and sky around me and at the same time snug and protected inside that tiny home. “

And besides the Ugali and chicken that Grandma Sarah made for Barack and his guest, what mattered most for Michelle out of the Kenyan experience, was Granny Sarah giving Obama her approval (and blessings) to marry Michelle.