Ja, wy kinne!

Heard the latest? Barack Obama actually is descended from Dutch ancestors! And that word comes from a French source, namely Libération, which a few days ago, at the time of the inauguration, came out with Batavian rumor: Is Barack Obama of Netherlands origin? (“Batavian” is simply a historical adjective meaning “Dutch.”) However, that Libération article does make reference to an article from last November in the Dutch (tabloid-quality) newspaper De Telegraaf (The Dutch roots of Obama), which itself further references an even-earlier article in De Volkskrant (of February, 2008) as well as another investigation into the subject on a Dutch history website.

Fine, but what’s the point? The point is this: Barack Obama’s great-grandfather might have been a Dutchman resident in Kenya. The surname “Obama” is supposedly not really that common there in the land of origin of Barack Obama Sr. Indeed, it rather seems quite close to “Obbema,” a typical surname from Friesland, which is a section of the Netherlands along the North coast that still has its own language (Frisian), a different history, and even a slightly-different culture. This small detail prompted the family-lineage-researcher Koen Verhoeven to go discover records of a certain Jelle Obbema, from Friesland, who sometime around 1870 went to seek his fortune in Kenya, and in fact made it big there in the peppermint trade. While making all this money, Jelle still found time to chase the native women, but, as all these accounts make plain, “he took his responsibility,” i.e. to support those children he sired and to give them his last name. One of these was a son named Sjoerd-Bark, in the Frisian custom of giving children double names (as in “Geert-Jan”). The thought is that this Sjoerd-Jan was later connected to Barack Obama Sr. – the similarity of their given names (“Bark” – “Barack”) is supposed to make that connection.

To my mind, it is there that this tale loses its credibility, since “Barack” is well-known to be derived from the Arabic root for “to bless” or “to be blessed.” (Compare the president of Egypt: Mubarak. And remember that the transmission of Arabic influence into Kenya would have come via Swahili, that common East African language – an official language in Kenya, along with English – which gleaned much of its vocabulary from Arabic.) Still, as these Dutch articles point out, Jelle Obbema and the relatives he left behind in Friesland were all impressive athletes, although this in the field of ice-skating rather than basketball. And then there is inscription to be found under the Obbema family coat-of-arms: Ja, wy kinne!, which naturally means “Yes we can!”

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