That 'Anti-Colonial Luo Tribesman'

And, no, I don't mean Obama, though Newt Gingrich (channeling Dinesh D'Sousa and his Forbes piece) has called him that, I mean a real Luo--and one of the people with great influence upon me as I was growing up.

His name was Alphonse O'Kuku. I first met him in 1963, and last saw him in 1990, not too many years before he died.

Alphonse was part of that group of Kenyan students--including Obama's father--who were sent to the United States to study soon after Kenyan independence. They were to provide the core future leadership for the new nation.

While a student at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Alphonse roomed with Lee Morgan at his parents' house. Lee's grandfather, Arthur Morgan, had been president of Antioch and was head of the TVA in the 1930s. Lee's parents, Ernest and Elizabeth, had recently founded a small boarding school (named after Ernest's father) in the mountains of North Carolina. I was a student there, a 7th grader.

Lee and Alphonse visited occasionally. I was fascinated by the dignified young African, the first person from that continent I'd ever met. As a result, I started learning about Africa, reading books about it.

My interest died down in the late sixties. There were distractions: the draft and the Vietnam War, social turmoil, and the more usual foci of youth. In the 1980s, through a girlfriend who went off to Peace Corps in Benin, my interest was rekindled. I ended up spending two years teaching in Burkina Faso (on a Fulbright grant) and then joining Peace Corps myself, for another two years, this time teaching farmers to use oxen for plowing in Togo.

While there, I got an address for Alphonse from Ernest. I wrote. He responded, and invited me to visit in Kenya after my Peace Corps service, if I were going that way. He did not remember me (why would he), but his letter was gracious in the extreme.

Alphonse had spent much of the time between Antioch and the eighties working for the United Nations, spending a great deal of time in Ethiopia. His brother, the independence leader Tom M'Boya, had been assassinated (just after Alphonse left his side) in 1967 and Alphonse, probably, decided it was better that he stay away from politics.

During the 1980s, however, he did join Daniel arap-Moi's government, serving in the cabinet, even. When I visited, he had 'retired' from politics, though he was still a member of KANU, the party of independence and the power in the government.

He showed me around Kisumu and Rusinga Island, where he and M'Boya were born. In Homa Bay, nearby, he proudly gave a tour of an institute studying insect-borne diseases, one he had been instrumental in promoting.

All in Kenya was not calm or easy, however. While in Kisumu, I read of a former justice minister, also a Luo, who had died mysteriously in an auto accident--soon after breaking with KANU.

Less than four years later, Alphonse had died, too. In an auto accident. And just after breaking with KANU to join the major Luo political party.

Alphonse was anti-colonial and a Luo, and most certainly had a Kenyan agenda. Yet there was nothing strange or unknowable about him. He was a lovely man willing to embrace a stranger; he was a man who worked hard to improve the lives of Kenya and Africa.

Though D'Sousa and Gingrich try to make being a Kenyan and a Luo something devilish, they speak from ignorance--and to the ignorant. There was nothing about Alphonse, certainly, that would be alien to an American. His agenda was much like ours: build a comfortable life for himself and his family, and help the broader community at the same time.

Alphonse was proud of his country and of his heritage--just as I am proud of mine. He was no 'tribesman,' no more than Obama is, but was a modern man of an emerging nation.

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