Obama's father among secret files on Kenyan students

By Sanchia Berg
Today programme

image captionMr Obama senior came to America in 1959 and began a degree in business administration

US officials complained Kenyan students were becoming "anti-white" in the year Barack Obama's father enrolled at university, previously secret files released at the National Archives in Kew reveal.

US President Barack Obama wrote with pride of his Kenyan father's studies in the US in his memoir Dream From My Father.

He wrote how he had been "selected by Kenyan leaders and American sponsors to attend a university in the United States joining the first large wave of Africans to be sent forth to master Western technology and bring it back to forge a new, modern Africa".

But British colonial authorities in Kenya, and the US State Department had concerns about the first large wave of Kenyan students, of which Barrack Obama Sr was part, according to the records released by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The file lists the Kenyans, who began studying in the US in 1959, including one "OBAMA Barrack H", who enrolled at the University of Hawaii. At the age of 23 he was the institution's first African student.


Funds for the students had been raised by the African-American Students Foundation in the US, and as part of their campaign they said that "in Kenya today higher education is not available to Africans".

British officials took offence at this. The Information Office at the British Embassy in Washington DC put together a briefing note in September 1959 saying it was "quite untrue".

A diplomat said that 451 Kenyans were studying in higher education - in Africa, the UK, and Canada - on bursaries provided by the Kenyan government.

image captionThe US president has said his father was the University of Hawaii's first African student

He questioned the calibre of students getting scholarships to US universities suggesting diplomats might "at your discretion" point out that those Kenyans going to the US held only "lower grades of school certificate", as those on higher grades were studying in Africa.

He also said that the students had been personally selected by the scheme's sponsors, who had picked candidates almost entirely from their own tribal groups.

"The motives behind this enterprise, therefore, seem more political than educational," the note stated.

"The arrival here of these students, many of them of indifferent academic calibre and ill-prepared for the venture, is likely to give rise to difficult problems," it said.

The British embassy in Washington consulted the US State Department. They were, apparently, "as disturbed about these developments as we are", according to one telegram back to London and Nairobi.

US officials had told the British diplomat that Kenyan students had a poor reputation, for falling into "bad hands" and "becoming both anti-American and anti-White".

But both British and American officials considered nothing could be done.

"The best we can hope to achieve is to exert some influence over them while they are here," wrote the official.

There is no record of whether Barrack H Obama was approached by any British diplomat.

He continued his studies, and married Anne Durham in 1961 - who gave birth to their son, Barack Obama, later that year.

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