The airlift education scholarship that changed the world

By Milton Nkosi
BBC News, Nairobi

image source, AP
image captionBarack Obama senior got a scholarship to study in the US

This is where the story of America's first black president, Barack Obama, begins.

The Kenyan trade unionist turned politician Tom Mboya, who studied at Ruskin College, Oxford, wanted members of his country's government to be adequately prepared for a post-colonial Kenya.

He recognised quite early on that there were not enough professional Africans to run an efficient civil service.

To make up the shortfall, he set up a scholarship fund that would take young bright Africans to the US and Canada.

The idea was for them to acquire the necessary skills and come back to help build a new country when the white civil servants packed up and returned to Europe.

One of those students was one Barack Obama from Kogelo, near the port city of Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.

media captionThe Kenyan town where everything is Obama

Barack Obama Senior was the first African student to study at the University of Hawaii.

There he fell in love and married a young American woman, Ann Dunham. They had a son named after his father, Barack Hussein Obama II.

Cut short

I travelled to Mr Obama's home in Kogelo where I met his step-grandmother Sarah Obama and aunt Marsat Onyango Obama to find out what the scholarship meant for the family at the time.

media captionPresident Obama's step-grandmother, Mama Sarah, is among those looking forward to his Kenya visit

We stood in the family's small graveyard, next to the grave of Barack Obama Senior.

Ms Onyango told me that even though she had not yet been born when Mr Obama left, she knew that the family had been very proud of him.

"They said he carried their hopes and dreams."

Tom Mboya was assassinated in central Nairobi 1969 at the age of 38.

He was minister of economic development and planning but the motive for his killing remains a mystery.

He had achieved a lot for his young age - his intellectual prowess and eloquence meant that he could articulate his vision clearly to others.

As a sign of his global significance he had appeared on the cover of Time magazine, the first Kenyan to have done so.

image captionTom Mboya has made an impact on Kenya with many streets being named after him

The gift

One of his daughters, Susan Mboya, who holds a PhD in chemistry, is an executive at Coca-Cola Africa based in Nairobi.

She also runs a scholarship programme, known as Zawadi, the Kiswahili word for gift, helping mainly young African women to study abroad.

In light of the excitement engulfing Kenya ahead of President Obama's visit this weekend, I asked what she thought of her father's initiative.

media captionSusan Mboya: "I want to finish what my father started"

She replied in a quiet, confident voice: "My father could not have known that by helping one person to go to school, he was going to change the lives of so many people.

"Barack Obama has achieved a lot personally and it's great that he is the president of the United States.

"But I think the biggest benefit that Barack Obama has brought is how he has inspired young people all over the world… and to me that is the huge thing that has come out of the scholarships."

I asked her why she had followed in her father's footsteps by setting up her own programme.

"I want to finish what my father started but I want to finish it in a way that brings balance to the leadership in this country."

Thirsty man

The airlift scholarship also took the Kenyan newspaper columnist Philip Ochieng to America.

He studied a Bachelor of Arts in Literature at Chicago's Roosevelt University.

The 76-year-old knew Mr Obama Senior very well and recalls that he was clever.

He told me in Nairobi that they used to drink whisky together.

As he put it: "America watered my thirst for knowledge."

What if

The scholarship programme educated nearly 800 students from Kenya and elsewhere in East Africa.

Other scholars included the late Wangari Mathaai, who became the first African woman to become a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and the late geneticist Reuben Olembo, who became a director at the United Nations environment agency, Unep.

image source, Getty Images
image captionBarack Obama met another recipient of the same scholarship as his father, Nobel prize winning Wangari Mathaai in Kenya before he was president

The partner, on the other side of the Atlantic, was an American entrepreneur William X Scheinman, who was a good friend of Tom Mboya's, and they received President John F Kennedy's support.

Musician and activist Harry Belafonte and actor Sidney Poitier raised funds for the scholarship fund, amongst many others.

Mr Belafonte later wrote about Mr Obama Senior's scholarship: "Imagine: perhaps, if not for support from the African American Students' Foundation, he might not have come to America," he said.

"Then who would be in the White House today?"

Change a life

image source, Unknown
image captionMr Obama senior visited his son in Hawaii

Mr Obama Senior, who also graduated from Harvard, returned to Kenya in 1968 and eventually worked for the government as an economist.

He died in a car crash in 1982.

But not before he had visited his son in Hawaii.

He gave his son his first basketball as a gift and took him to his first jazz concert, where the maestro pianist and composer Dave Brubeck was performing.

And as I left her office in Nairobi, which boasts pictures of when she met President Obama, Ms Mboya reminded me "it doesn't take much to change a life."

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