A Wordsworth Books event, to launch Dr Auma Barack’s ‘And Then Life Happens: A Memoir’, was a definite to attend, especially as it was to be held at De Grendel Restaurant, where I had enjoyed an excellent meal just after it opened a few weeks ago. The restaurant handled the more than 100 book lovers admirably, the meal matching the stature of the speaker.
Gorry Bowes Taylor organises the book launch events for Wordsworth Books, and is an entertaining hostess. She struggled to pronounce the name of Auma (A-Uma), and resorted to calling her Dr Obama to make it easier. She chose not to make a speech about the book, but preferred to be asked questions, having pre-arranged what she was not allowed to be asked, but cheekily Ms Bowes Taylor did attempt to ask them, not with much success in obtaining answers to these! We were given a fleeting overview of Auma’s life and complex family relationships, and the Barack Obama that she writes about in her book the most is her father Barack Sr. She calls her half-brother, the President of the United States of America, Barack Jr, saying that he objects to being called Barry, which is what the family used to call him.
Her father had a pre-arranged tribal marriage with her mother Kezia, but they separated (divorce does not exist in their Luo culture in Kenya). He studied at Harvard, and whilst there he met and married Ann, with whom he had Barack Jr. They divorced, and Barack Sr married Ruth, whom he had also met in the United States, but returned to Kenya with, looking after Auma and her brother, in accordance with the Luo tradition of the father taking responsibility for the children, until they too got divorced after having two sons. The book tells the tale of a once successful father who changed jobs, lost his financial standing to such an extent that he often could not pay Auma’s school and boarding fees, and was emotionally distant to his daughter (‘he was physically there but not emotionally‘), the relationship never being repaired. Auma wanted to study in Germany, having loved learning German at school, as a way of escaping her father, and left Kenya at 19 years, without seeking her father’s consent. Her father’s death in a car accident, under ‘mysterious circumstances’, however, affected her badly. Auma herself was involved in a number of relationships, with Dieter and Karl in Germany, marrying and divorcing Ian in England, and meeting the American Marvin on a flight, becoming her partner after seven years of keeping in touch.
The book shares a lot of Auma’s heartache, overshadowed by her parents break-up, her father’s emotional distance and financial problems, and ultimately, the colour of her skin, which created problems for her even in liberal Germany and England. Yet one senses that she felt more at home in Germany for a long time, having lived there for 16 years, obtaining her doctorate after studying at the Universities of Saarbrücken and Heidelberg, and even first writing the book in German (‘Das Leben kommt immer dazwischen’). One of her joys was meeting her half-brother Barack Jr, and she travelled to America a number of times, meeting him for the first time after their father’s death. For both the meeting was an important one, Barack Jr being able to learn more about his absent father, whom he would have wished to have known better, and for Auma a way of sharing her disappointment in him as a father, having felt let down by him. She writes about meeting her half-brother: ‘Our encounter was an enormous gift for me’, and that he is a ‘new brother I had gained‘. They saw each other both in the USA and in Kenya, when he came to meet the family, when they celebrated him becoming a Senator, and ultimately celebrating his inauguration as President of the USA. One senses that she felt closest to Barack Jr of all her siblings (half and step ones included). The book ends with the effect that Barack Jr’s presidential status has on their life in Kenya, where she now lives with her daughter Akinyi and Marvin, and cynically she writes how many acquaintances of the past have been looking to make contact with her again, due to her now famous half-brother. In her book Dr Obama comes across as a complex person, fiercely independent on the one hand, and yet scarred by the relationship with her father and the men in her life.
The only references to food in the book, given the launch at De Grendel Restaurant, were two-fold. At the age of thirteen, living with her father after he had divorced Ruth, she had to cook supper, being ‘ugali’, a ‘cooked maize flour paste’, or our ‘pap’, and she felt a failure when she could not get it stiff as she had not waited for the water to boil before adding the maize flour. Her father’s disapproval was evident, as they had to throw away her cooking attempt, and buy another pack to make a new potful, at a time when Barack Sr was down and out financially. She writes about the ‘Abendbrot‘ she experienced in Germany, an unusual (for her) evening meal of breads, cheese and cold meats.
The lunch at De Grendel Restaurant, prepared by Chef Ian Bergh and his team, was a three course one, and I was lucky to sit at the table of De Grendel communications consultant Errieda du Toit (who had her book autographed by Auma) and her husband Ian. The starter was a beautiful looking Caramelized shallot, confit tomato and chevre tartlet, which was paired with De Grendel Sauvignon Blanc 2011. For the main course Kingklip was served with basmati rice, shitake mushrooms, prawns, mange tout, baby corn, and tika masala, paired with De Grendel Winifred 2010, their flagship blend of Viognier, Semillon and Chardonnay. For dessert we were served Chocolate Torte with a delicious De Grendel Merlot ice cream.
De Grendel Restaurant, De Grendel wine estate, M14, Plattekloof Road, Plattekloof. Tel (021) 558-6280. www.degrendel.co.za Twitter:@DeGrendelWines. Tuesday – Sunday lunch, Tuesday – Saturday dinner.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage