Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Six Degrees of Separation

Unless one is an expert on the politics and economics of East Africa, one’s not likely to recognize the name William X. Scheinman.

Unless one followed developments in postcolonial Africa, one’s not likely to recognize the name Tom Mboya.

Every American and most people throughout the world, however, recognize the name Barack Obama.

What’s the connection?

In the late 1950s, Scheinman, an American businessman, and Mboya, a politician, an advocate for democratic development, and a leader of labor and independence movements in Africa, became fast friends. Mboya, knowing education was the key to independence and a vibrant democracy, was looking for a way to get young Africans (mainly Kenyans) a university education in the United States and Canada. With Scheinman’s help, connections, and financial support, Mboya created the African American Students Foundation: the vehicle that helped thousands of Africans to come to America.

One of those young students who came to the United States under the umbrella of the African American Students Foundation was none other than Barack Obama Senior.

Both Scheinman’s and Mboya’s papers are housed in the Hoover Institution Archives. In processing those papers, we ran across thank-you letters from the senior Obama to Mboya. Here are several excerpts from one of those letters:

Barack Obama Sr. to Tom Mboya, May 29, 1962,
Tom Mboya Papers,
Box 41, Hoover Institution Archives.

Mboya went on to become a minister in the cabinet of Kenya’s first independent government in 1963, and many believe the history of Kenya would have been very different had Mboya not been assassinated in 1969.

Despite the important role Mboya played in the African independence and labor movements, it is sometimes the other things in collections that catch one’s eye, the Obama letters being a case in point.

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