James Martin – the man who made contact with the Luo tribe Author Mark Pullicino returns to the story of the 19th century Maltese explorer who may have discovered the ‘Obama Tribe’ in Kenya

Following 2008’s Opening Africa and 2014’s James Martin, The Maltese Explorer, author Mark Pullicino returns to the story of James Martin – an illiterate Maltese district officer in the Imperial British East Africa Company – for his latest book The Obama Tribe Explorer.

Potentially the first white man to make contact with the Luo tribe of western Kenya – from which former US president Barack Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr, was descended – Pullicino’s unconventional biography embellishes the historical record with a fictional retelling of Martin’s remarkable life.

Here, Avaunt publishes an exclusive extract…


The Luo were another tribe Martin managed to get to know at this time and about which he would learn more in the future. He found them a versatile and industrious folk who were quick to smile and often liked to play music and dance. One day a young Luo arrived at the Freretown camp looking rather poorly. He had been snatched from his village near Lake Victoria, in the dead of night, by a group of native raiders. Although he was a brave fighter, when the ‘night spirits’, who wore strange masks, woke him up and pointed spears in his face, he had frozen in fear and been unable do anything. It was as if his whole will to act had drained out of him. He could not understand why he had behaved so passively – it was as if he were programmed to do so.

He was tied up by the raiders and marched for two weeks to an area further inland, where he was sold to Arab traders in exchange for a few cattle. The traders put him in chains and he walked the two-and-a-half-month journey to the coast carrying a load of ivory tusks. His friend who had been chained next to him died halfway through the march. The slave trader had just unhooked his chains in the morning and dragged the body away.

On arrival at the coast, he and the other slaves that were still alive were put in a dark cave where they waited for a week. The young Luo had never felt so sad, but there was nothing he could do. He was herded onto a dhow early one morning and chained to the galley below the deck. Two days into the sailing, he heard shouting as another ship came alongside. Sailors in blue coats boarded the dhow and came down to the galley, where they cut the slaves’ chains and set them free. Within two days he had arrived in Freretown. Martin asked the young man what his name was. ‘Barak,’ he replied, in a half frightened voice. Martin tried as usual to link the new word with a similar-sounding Maltese one. He often found that he hit on a matching meaning, more as a joke than anything else.

‘Ahlla Ei Berak,’ he said, which was a common Maltese greeting-word that his mother always used, meaning ‘God bless you’. Barak’s eyes lit up and a smile came to his face – his first smile in a long time.

Martin got along well with the young man for the rest of his time in Freretown. He learned a little of the Luo language, and something of the people’s culture and their ways of fishing and working. The other man learned the skills Martin taught him and slowly regained his self-respect.


The Obama Tribe Explorer by Mark Pullicino is published by MPI Publishing and is available now in paperback and ebook.

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