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How Barack Obama, Sr., John F. Kennedy, Tom Mboya, and 800 East African Students Changed Their World and Ours

by Tom Shachtman

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-312-57075-0
Publisher: St. Martin's

The story of communal American liberality 50 years ago and how it affected today’s world, retrieved from the files of an almost forgotten nongovernmental organization.

In 1959, many Africans and African-Americans saw their circumstances as connected, with colonialism and segregation mirroring each other. “Uhuru! Freedom Now!” was the cry in sub-Sahara Africa, and if education was the key to black freedom and independence for both populations, education in America—rather than England or the Soviet Union—was seen as crucial for Africans. The African American Students Foundation, whose founders included charismatic Kenyan activist Tom Mboya, sought to arrange transportation to the United States for young East Africans who had secured scholarships at American colleges. The organization’s first airlift brought President Obama’s father and 80 more bright, eager students from a dozen tribes. Though some were inadequately prepared for their new lives as American scholars, most succeeded remarkably, Shachtman (Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish, 2006, etc.) demonstrates in revealing character sketches. Ultimately, the students returned home to become doctors, academics and government officials in their newly formed nations. The airlift effort became a political football between Nixon and Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign, with both candidates seeking to somehow take credit for its success. Though the AASF was strongly supported by Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr., among other luminaries, raising money for the charter flights was difficult until the government took over funding the flights in 1964. Nonetheless, the efforts of the AASF proved to be a crucial element in the development of numerous students who would become significant figures in their home nations. Shachtman’s text, gleaned from the organization’s files and interviews with principals, offers a compelling portrait of nation-building abroad and nation-changing at home.

A valuable case study of the effectiveness of NGOs when they are operated with care and confidence.