At home in different worlds

One day, she’s working with poor children in Kenya, the next, she’s meeting with the rich and powerful. Sociologist Auma Obama feels at home in both worlds. A conversation about different starting points, shared opportunities, and the question of whether the world is—becoming smaller—and if so, how

By Michael Moorstedt and Stefan Tillmann

Auma Obama ©Robert Brembeck

The sociologist Auma Obama is the half-sister of the former US president Barack Obama.

MM | Ms. Obama, you live in two different worlds. With your foundation in Kenya, you work with poor children, but you also travel the world meeting the elite of the global village. How do you handle that? How long does it take you to adjust to such totally different environments?

AUMA OBAMA | I’m actually at home in three worlds. There’s my international work, then I’m in Nairobi—a big city—and then I’m with the people in my aid projects. I find it easy to adjust, perhaps because I’ve lived in Germany and Europe for a very long time and know what it’s like. Nairobi is my home, that’s where I grew up. I know my way around and I can also take some time for myself. I still work, but mainly at my desk. My passion is being in the countryside, in Alego, the home of the children and families that we work with. Roll up your sleeves, get stuck in—I love that. It gives me a sense of purpose and shows me why I do this work.

MM | The promise of globalization has always been that these worlds will grow together—has this happened, in your experience?

OBAMA | I think so, yes. Because of the Internet, if nothing else. People learn much more from each other. This knowledge may not always be correct, but at least they have access to it. We never had this kind of access in the past. It’s a great opportunity and a chance to get to know different people and different worlds without needing to leave your desk or your house. That’s why the world has become closer and smaller.

“Join in, do it yourself, I like that very much. That gives me sense and shows me why I do this work.” Auma Obama

MM | You once said the Internet is both a curse and a blessing because it creates false expectations in young people. In what way?

OBAMA | In July this year, we set up a computer laboratory with Internet access as part of our project. But we haven’t started working there yet, because first I think young people have to learn how to handle so much information. They have to understand the relationship between what they see on the Web and their own life in a hut with no running water. Instagram isn’t real life. People put on their make-up, present an image of themselves, look amazing. But that’s not reality. It’s dangerous when you start thinking, ah, I can have that life, too. You have to keep your feet on the ground and ask yourself what you have at home. What can you build on to improve your life?

Auma Obama ©Robert Brembeck

Auma Obama grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. She came to Heidelberg as a student in 1980 and went on to do her PhD in Bayreuth.

MM | What about the other way around? Do people in Germany and the West have an image of Africa that corresponds to today’s reality? After all, Kenya, Nigeria, and other African countries now have vibrant start-up scenes, particularly in the fintech area.

OBAMA | Interestingly, very little seems to have changed in people’s minds. When I grew up, I knew much more about Europe and the US than Europeans and Americans knew about us. We learned it at school. But when I came to Germany, I discovered people knew nothing about us. The questions I was asked always made me think that people don’t read, they know nothing about this huge continent.

MM | Knowledge doesn’t come automatically.

OBAMA | Exactly. And that hasn’t changed, despite the Internet. I always say Professor Google only tells you what you ask. If you don’t want to know, you won’t know. And that’s why my daughter, who has just come to Europe, is facing the same questions that I was asked almost 40 years ago.

“You can’t negotiate with nature.” Auma Obama

MM | They could learn a lot of positive things. The trends relating to life expectancy, literacy, infant and child mortality are all good. How do you see the future? Are you optimistic?

OBAMA | I work with children and young people. I have to be optimistic or there would be no point. For me, they are our potential for making the world a better place. I try to communicate values to these young people and teach them that they also have a responsibility. This relates to both food production and protecting the environment. We are all dependent on each other, and children have to learn this as early as possible. We’ll only succeed in this if we show them that this world is worth it.

Auma Obama ©Robert Brembeck

Auma Obama made it easy for us—by conducting the interview in fluent German.

Can development aid be a business?

MM | China is currently investing heavily in your home country, Kenya, and in Africa in general. Billions are pouring into infrastructure, railway lines, and container ports. Should development aid be a business?

OBAMA | There’s no such thing as a free lunch. We get into debt and trade old dependencies for new ones. And we have to decide whether we can afford it. That’s the problem. Not every loan is a good loan. People in Africa have to think about sustainability. My work, on the other hand, is about helping people to help themselves. What can we achieve with our local resources? Where can we avoid being dependent on outside forces and money?

MM | But investment is needed—the African population is set to double by 2050.

OBAMA | You can’t say there are too many people. It’s just that we have too many young people with no prospects. But once they have prospects, this continent will be the future of the world. Here, we still have clean water, clean air, and clean soil. So it’s imperative that we all start to view this continent as representing hope, opportunity, and potential, not as a problem. I know it’s not politically correct to say so, but the real problem lies in Europe. People don’t have enough space. The water is no longer clean. The land has been literally farmed to death by the agricultural industry.

“The fact that you have no running water and no electricity doesn’t necessarily mean you’re poor.” Auma Obama

MM | Is the West the wrong role model then?

OBAMA | Yes. But it’s not a case of saying, oh, Europe bad, Africa good. It’s about ­preserving all the parts of the earth that are still healthy.

MM | You grew up in Kenya as the daughter of a government official. Have you experienced poverty yourself?

OBAMA | The question is how you define poverty. And that’s where my work starts. The fact that you have no running water and no electricity doesn’t necessarily mean you’re poor. I was born in a rural area and my grandmother brought me up until I moved to the city. We had no running water or electricity, but I was happy. I never went hungry, and we fetched our water from the river. The problem is that today, I work with children and young people who live exactly as I used to, but now they think they’re poor because that’s the ­classic development aid definition. They all say: I can’t help myself, I’m just a victim.

MM | So, who is actually poor?

OBAMA | People are only really poor when they move to the city and end up in the slums. That’s terrible. In rural areas, they have everything they need, but they leave it behind to seek wealth and happiness in the cities. Instead, they end up in real poverty. It’s really a question of perspective.

MM | In what way?

OBAMA | In Europe, lots of people dream of a holiday without electricity and running water. So they go and stay in a log cabin in Sweden with an outhouse and pay a fortune to “find themselves.” But in Kenya, that’s what everyone wants to get away from, and we think we’re poor. Everyone should ask themselves: Hold on, what makes me happy? For me, the main thing is ensuring we don’t ruin our world and realizing that much of what we think of as progress and prosperity is actually what destroys us.

“So it’s imperative that we all start to view this continent as representing hope, opportunity, and potential, not as a problem.” Auma Obama

MM | You once said you knew from an early age where you wanted to go in life. Can you tell us when that was and what you had in mind?

OBAMA | Thinking back, by the age of eight, I already knew what I didn’t want. I grew up with boys, and my father was a very strong character. All I ever heard was: “You’re a girl, you can’t do this or that.” And: “You’re a girl, you have to do this and that.” My brother is only two years older than me. I always competed with him and heard that he could and I couldn’t. It bothered me, I fought against it. I knew then that I didn’t want to be defined solely by my gender. I had to create a space where I would be defined first and foremost as a human being. And where my words aren’t ignored simply because I’m a woman. That’s also why my foundation is called Sauti Kuu, which means “strong voices.”

MM | To what extent do the dreams of the children that you work with differ from the dreams of your generation back then?

OBAMA | With our foundation, we have created something that didn’t exist before. A place where children can play sports, learn, and be creative through theater, music, and poetry. They learn to speak, to use their voice, to talk to each other, to debate. They learn handicraft skills and are shown how to cultivate the land. It’s more than a youth center, it’s a place where they work through things together, where they ask why am I here, what is my responsibility, and what do I have to do to have a good life as an adult?

MM | So, everything’s fine?

OBAMA | We used to get a better school education. More was expected of us, we had to be ambitious and strive to succeed. These days, “nerd” is an insult bandied around by young people. Life is competitive. Children and teenagers need to know that. But I have a feeling that lots of things are neglected at school, such as soft skills, values, political engagement, sport, and creativity. A lot of things that should be part of a young person’s education have simply been struck off the curriculum.

MM | In your doctoral thesis, you compared perceptions of work in Germany and Kenya— what specific differences are there?

OBAMA | I was mainly interested in the work ethic. Of course, this is very pronounced here in Germany. People are much more likely to define themselves through their job. If you don’t have a job, you’re nothing. Society treats you like a loser. You keep on applying for jobs and your self-confidence takes knock after knock. In Africa, people don’t define themselves by their work, but by their family and social standing. This means you can be unemployed but still walk around with your head held high, without feeling like a failure. You might be proud of your sons or your wife instead.

MM | That sounds really good, doesn’t it?

OBAMA | wrote my dissertation a few years ago, and at that time I thought: “Oh, our way is much more human.” But it causes dependencies and I also find I’m coming full circle in my own work. Because it’s not perceived as a problem. For example, I might work, have a child, and earn good money, but my sister, who has five children and is unemployed, has no problem asking me to pay her kids’ school fees. And now she’s pregnant with her sixth child. So the high value placed on family becomes a disadvantage because it’s used to exploit others. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that we can’t get bogged down in this. We need a stronger sense of responsibility and duty.

Auma Obama ©Robert Brembeck

Alongside her work for her foundation, Auma Obama is a much sought-after speaker and expert on sustainability and human rights.

MM | What would you say to children growing up in your foundation who want to come to Europe? Would you be disappointed?

OBAMA | I certainly wouldn’t stop them. After all, I came to Europe myself. I needed a place where I could grow as a person. I felt restricted and limited in what I could do. I was a girl, a woman. Our projects are in rural areas, so our children and teenagers say they want to go to the city. All we can do is show them what they could have in the city and what they are leaving behind, because most of the time, they end up in the slums.

MM | What specifically do you say to them?

OBAMA | I tell them to go, but to go equipped. I would never say no. I’d just say be ready for it. You can go, but not as a refugee. Then you’ll end up on the street and have nothing, but you can’t come back because you’re ashamed to say: “I went to Europe, but I made nothing of my life.” Despite this, most of them still go as refugees. They shouldn’t do that. There’s a treasure trove of possibilities here if they will only make use of them. They just have to take one step at a time. Then this route is not an escape, but an alternative.

MM | You still spend a lot of time in Germany. How do you perceive the mood in the country?

OBAMA | Difficult. People are much colder now. But I don’t think that’s the majority of Germans. Germany has become so diverse, it’s a real melting pot. Germans are no longer just blond and blue-eyed.

MM | The rise of the far right is underpinned by opposition to globalization. Isolationism is a global trend.

OBAMA | Exactly. We do a lot of work with emotions and fear here. People think that the people who come to their country want to take something from them. But if you take the time to study the facts, you find out that most refugees stay on their continent of origin. In Kenya, for example, we have considerably more refugees than Germany. Half a million people live in the Kakuma refugee camp alone, and they’ve been there for three generations. They are partly integrated and partly ghettoized. The problems and fears caused by migration are not exclusive to Europe.

MM | How do you fight fear?

OBAMA | The migration discussion isn’t objective—it, deliberately works on a wide range of emotions. I recently gave a lecture on diversity and the importance of migration. I said that if you really want to tackle the situation properly, you just have to imagine a German street with German people and imagine that everything that comes from abroad disappears. Then everyone would be walking around naked and the streets would be gray. It’s so simple. Even people who go out on the streets demonstrating against foreigners are wearing Levi’s jeans—which are made in Africa. The world is no longer homogeneous. It never was. But nowadays, people can no longer avoid accepting this fact.