By Hillel Aron
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Both were born to Kenyan fathers of the same tribe (the Luo) from the same province (Nyanza), and both of their fathers came as boys to America aboard the same airplane. Growing up, neither Ochieng nor Obama knew their fathers, who both abandoned their American mothers and left their American-born children behind. Both of their fathers returned to Africa in the early 1960s and became friends, bonding at Kenyan bars over their favorite drink — Scotch. Both Ochieng’s and Obama’s mothers contracted ovarian cancer. (Hers survived it; his did not). Both Ochieng and Obama were born in the U.S. in August 1961 — only weeks apart.
But for someone with parallel beginnings, Juliette Akinyi Ochieng is quite different: Evangelical Christian. Working class. Military veteran. Pro-life. Conservative Republican.
Ochieng went to Los Angeles City College, not Harvard. Although she was born in Chicago — Obama’s political birthplace — she lives in South-Central Los Angeles, where she grew up. And since 2003, she has written a blog, luoamerican.com/baldilocks, better known as Baldilocks, a reference to her fashionably close-shaven head. Her soft speech belies her harsh yet thoughtful commentaries on black politics and national security from a conservative perspective.
Last month, she penned an essay for her site and for Republican-oriented pajamasmedia.com, bemoaning blacks’ loyalty to the Democrats. Last week, as Russian tanks rolled through Georgia, Ochieng, who worked for years as an Air Force Intelligence cryptologist-linguist specializing in Russian and German, mused about that conflict.
“She was very shaped by her experiences in the military,” says fellow blogger Patrick Frey, the deputy district attorney who founded Patterico.com. “She has very strong opinions, and she’s a very religious person. She’s very warm and hospitable.”
Recent visitors to her site cannot miss her new mission: Making good on a promise to a Kenyan school named in honor of Barack Obama.
It’s a promise, she says, that Barack Obama broke.
In August 2006, Senator Obama toured Kenya, his first trip to his father’s nation. Thousands of Kenyans welcomed him, international media followed wherever he went, and glowing stories flowed forth.
One spot he visited was the recently renamed Senator Obama Kogelo Secondary School in Nyang’oma-Kogelo, a village in equatorial western Kenya where Obama’s roots go deep: His father, Barack Sr., was born there. His 86-year-old step-grandmother, Sarah, still lives there in a brick shanty with a tin roof and no running water.
Almost exactly two years ago, Barack Obama visited the school built upon land that, decades ago, Obama’s grandfather donated. In anticipation of Obama’s visit, the school changed its name to honor the village’s most famous progeny, Barack Jr.
The school had only four classrooms. It lacked water, functioning bathrooms and even electricity. A third of its students were orphans. Its extreme need made Senator Obama’s speech there all the more riveting for the village residents.
“Hopefully, I can provide some assistance in the future to this school and all that it can be,” Obama said. Looking directly at the school’s principal, Yuanita Obiero, and her teachers, he added, “I know you are working very hard and struggling to bring up this school, but I have said I will assist the school, and I will do so.”
In the two years since, Obama has experienced a meteoric political rise, becoming the Democratic flag-bearer, authoring a best-seller and last year, with his wife, Michelle, earning $4.2 million. He bought a luxury home. Last year, he gave $240,000 to charities.
But apparently not to the Senator Obama Kogelo School. “Senator Obama has not honored the promises he gave me when we met in 2006 and in his earlier letter to the school,” Principal Obiero has told the London-based, conservative tabloid EveningStandard. “He has not given us even one shilling. But we still have hope.”
As the Standard reports it, Principal Obiero explained, “We interpreted his words as meaning he would help fund the school, either personally or by raising sponsors or both, in order to give our school desperately needed modern facilities and a face-lift.”
Enter Baldilocks, who lives in a rough area of Los Angeles, is the caregiver for an elderly relative and worries, like most people, about her bills. She hasn’t got millions and didn’t attend an Ivy League school.
But she was embarrassed by her fellow Luo-American, Barack Obama. She rushed to fill the financial void, forming a California nonprofit to funnel money to the African school. With a flair for drama, she named it “Save Senator Obama Kogelo School” and held a mini fund-raiser. She’s raised $3,500, so she’s a long way from the $750,000 she wants to raise within two years.
Thestory of Kogelo School has gotten little press outside of conservative blogs, where readers have found what they want to believe — Obama as an empty vessel. Here’s a typical comment: “This is a real shame. I hope people wake up to the real Obama.”
Creating a nonprofit to raise funds for a school that Obama allegedly ignored seems like political theater, but Ochieng tells L.A. Weekly, “It’s not a political stunt.” Ochieng is ambivalent about whether her efforts could hurt Obama. “I go back and forth on it,” she says. “If he made a promise and he didn’t keep it, that makes him look bad on his own. I can’t control what people do with this information.” (The Obama campaign has not responded to a Weekly request for comment.)
Obama’s crossover appeal to black conservatives such as former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts has not extended to Baldilocks. She has excoriated fellow black conservatives for “abandoning” their principles to go with skin color. Considering that blacks are the most reliable Democratic voting bloc — at times monolithically voting 90 percent Democrat — her stance isn’t an easy one.
“She’s walking a tight line,” says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political independent and frequent contributor to Los Angeles op-ed pages. “The backlash is withering from African-Americans if you say anything negative about Obama. I know it. I’ve experienced it myself for being critical of him at times. I’ve gotten hate e-mail. The venom. The hate.” Adds Hutchinson, “The name-calling is endless.”
Echoing him, black blogger Michael Bower of Conservativebrotherhood.org says that among blacks, “it’s tougher to be a critic of Obama than a supporter.”
Yet by virtue of their identical life stories — that is, until Obama went to the Ivy League, while Ochieng was drawn to the military — Baldilocks is also a reluctant defender of Obama against what she calls unfair attacks. That’s a difficult line to push in the blogosphere, where the right-wing fringe can come alive with overt racism. Last December, the blogosphere was abuzz with false smears: Obama is a Muslim. He attended a madrasah.
In her blog post “Warning to the Right,” Ochieng wrote: “I’m tired of it all. I’m tired of the insinuations about Senator Barack Obama because his dead father was a Muslim. I’m tired of the insinuations about his middle name — Hussein — and the racist/bigoted insinuations that I’ve seen on the right that flow from there.”
Added Ochieng, “I was raised a Muslim also ... but things change.”
She speaks from experience. Long ago, Ochieng, her mom and her stepfather converted to Christianity, abandoning the Nation of Islam. Today, her stepfather is a Methodist preacher. And until the 2000 presidential election, Baldilocks was a Democrat.
There is irony in this: As much as she dislikes Obama’s left-of-center politics and worries about his meteoric rise, she has benefited in a personal way: Media coverage of Obama’s family unearthed information that gave her a window into her own, muddied origins.
Like Barack Sr., her father, Philip Ochieng, was one of Kenya’s 81 best students, flown to America in 1959 during what was called the Mboya Airlift to study at U.S. universities and, it was then hoped, return to build their Kenyan homeland. The flight was financed by Martin Luther King Jr., Sidney Poitier, Jackie Robinson, Harry Belafonte and others.
Ochieng knew nothing of this. She has never met her father, now a writer in Africa. “I owe my existence to them,” she says of the airlift’s prominent financiers.
So does Barack Obama. But for Baldilocks, their links fall apart in real time. From her modest home in South-Central she has launched a small effort for a village she has never seen. If she embarrasses a presidential candidate she doesn’t support, and earns the enmity of the black community, so be it.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.