A tribute to my ‘Dani’, Mama Sarah Obama

Mama Sarah Obama

Mama Sarah Obama speaks during the United Nations 2014 Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations in New York City. 

Photo credit: Jemal Countess | AFP

When I was trying to make sense of my grief at the loss of my Dani (grandmother), Mama Sarah Obama; when my head, on the one hand, was saying that it was no surprise that she had taken her leave of us — her time had come! — and my heart, on the other, was breaking in tiny pieces at the thought that I would never hear her call me Nyar Baba again, someone I did not know sent me these quotes:

Grandmas hold our tiny hands for just a little while, but our hearts forever. — Anonymous.

Parent-child relationships are complex. Grandmother-grandchild relationships are simple. Grandmas are short on criticism and long on love. — Janet Lanese.

Grandmothers always have time to talk and make you feel special. — Catherine Pulsifer.

Every parent knows that children look at their grandparents as sources of wisdom and security. — David Jeremiah.

If nothing is going well, call your grandmother. — Italian Proverb.

There are grandmothers out there who would move heaven and earth for their grandchildren. — Janice Elliott-Howard.

Grandmothers and roses are much the same. Each is a God’s masterpiece with different names. — Anonymous


The words did not dry my tears, but they gave me comfort and put a smile on my face. Because all of the above applied to my grandmother!

Mama Sarah was a grandmother and mother to many. As long as I can remember we, as a family, shared her with the many children and young people she gave refuge to. Some for a few weeks, others for months or years; children who had been abused, abandoned, orphaned. In many cases, children, whose parents just could not cope financially and needed a safe space.

That safe space was Mama Sarah. Despite hardly having the financial resources herself, she took them all in, housed, fed and educated them. Her home was an open door to all who were in need. This also applied to community members, who she would invite to go to her shamba and pick or harvest what they needed.

Mama Sarah was a fierce promotor of progress and development. But as generous as she was, believing that one should always share with others their good fortune, she did not believe in begging or tolerate laziness. She believed that through hard work and schooling everyone could achieve one’s goals and aspirations. That is why she was such a champion of education, and why her priority in helping others was always education, education, education!

To the lazy ones, she would say: “Study hard and do well at school, so that you can get a good job and afford to employ someone to work for you, that is, to clean up after you!” What she was really saying was: We all have options and there is no excuse for not making it in life!

Mama Sarah, my Dani, kept us all grounded. She frowned on anyone who thought he or she could define her as just the grandmother of the first African American President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.

As much as she was proud of and loved my brother Barack, she did not let his presidency dictate who she was or how she viewed the world. She maintained her love of sharing, continued to keep her home open to all, and at all times spoke her mind on all issues, be they political or social. She stayed true to herself. And by doing so she enabled all of us to embrace with dignity the sudden fame that my brother’s presidency gave us.


Dani Sarah was strong, resilient, smart, generous, loving and hardworking. I will remember her for all of those attributes. But most of all I will remember her for her humour and her infectious laugh! Mama Sarah was always able to lighten whatever load you had by making you laugh. She saw the funny side of things, and was not above joking about herself.

Her genuine curiosity about people, which began with her asking them where they (especially Luos) came from, would often have us in stitches, because somewhere in the process of getting them to narrate their family trees, she would discover a link with our family, and hence (to their delight) declare them Obamas!

Her knowledge of Kenyan history, despite not having gone to school, was vast, so that even those who were not from the Luo community would get to hear from her about the warriors and great leaders from their communities and how they impacted our fight for independence. To Dani, everyone was family. It did not matter where they came from. She was able to embrace them all.

Mama Sarah, Dani, was our rock, our constant comfort, a safe space for many of us. We will all miss her greatly. We all have to learn to live without her. This is hard! But as the above quoted saying goes: Grandmas hold our tiny hands for just a little while, but our hearts forever. Dani, you will forever live in our hearts!

Rest in eternal peace beloved Dani NYOMAR!

We all are forever grateful to have had you hold our hands for so long!