Barack and Sarah Obama

A young Barack Obama with his grandmother, Mama Sarah Obama, during a trip to Kenya.

| Courtesy

Barack and Mama Sarah: How the Obamas inspired the world

What you need to know:

  • Barack Obama affectionately referred to Mama Sarah as Granny.
  • In 1992, just before Obama got married to Michelle, he flew her to Kenya to introduce her to his family, especially Granny.

From the day Barack Obama arrived in Kogelo and his grandmother called out his name loudly, something happened to him. 

She settled down his urge regarding his roots and he felt the joy of reaching his fatherland. That is what the simple shouting of one’s name can do. Mama Sarah remained a striking figure to the young Obama.

He had attempted to mumble the simplest dholuo greeting, ‘Musawa’, and the old lady was really fascinated; she could not hide the joy of seeing her step-grandson for the first time. 

A new relationship had developed from that awkward and happy moment. Both had won each other’s heart.

This was in 1988, where after a long night train travel from Nairobi to Kisumu, followed by another five-hour uncomfortable journey in an overcrowded old bus, Obama met his ‘people’ for the first time. 

“Eh, Obama!” were the first words Mama Sarah said when she saw the then 27-year-old tall, lanky wide-eared, grinning grandson.

“A big woman with a scarf on her head strode out of the main house drying her hands on the sides of her flowered skirt. She had a face like Sayid’s (his uncle), smooth and big-boned, with sparkling, laughing eyes,” Obama described his step-grandmother in the first encounter in his book, Dreams From my Father.

Mama Sarah Obama

Mama Sarah Obama during Jamhuri Day Celebrations at the Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi on December 12, 2016.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Family matriarch

When he attempted to answer her English greeting in Luo, the amused grandmother was overjoyed, and admitted this to Dr Auma Obama, who worked as the perfect translator during the visit.

“She says she has dreamed about this day, when she would finally meet this son of her son. She says you’ve brought her great happiness. She says that now you have finally come home,” Obama noted in his book.

He affectionately referred to Mama Sarah as Granny.

Though overjoyed by Obama’s visit, Granny was piqued by the fact that she could not speak to her grandson in Luo.

This happened when they had gone for a stroll and after Mama Sarah greeted him, the two settled in awkward silence, none could speak the other’s language. She turned to Auma and expressed her pain that she could not communicate with the “son of her son”.

This is well captured in Obama’s book. “Tell her I’d like to learn Luo, but it’s hard to find time in the States,” I said. “Tell her how busy I am.”

“She understands that,” Auma said. “But she also says that a man can never be too busy to know his own people.”

During the visit, Obama learnt of his grandfather’s exploits as a cook during World War II. Though they could not converse openly, Mama Sarah imparted in him the importance of family. She was a matriarch that held the reins of the family since the death of her husband, Hussein Onyango Obama, in 1979.

She asked her grandson to go look for his uncle, Omar Obama, who had gone to the US shortly after independence and never returned home.

“She says when you see him, you should tell him she wants nothing from him. Only that he should come visit his mother,” Auma told him.

Hard worker

The matriarch elucidated more about the Obama lineage to her grandson and explained to him with much joy of his grandfather’s escapades while serving the British Army – including how he married a Burmese woman – though all of them did not believe that account.

Her mettle and firmness were unrivaled that she always left her grandchildren mesmerised. So bold was she that she managed to calm the tempers of her spouse, who was so fierce and strict that the grandchildren had nicknamed him “Terror”.

A generous and jolly figure, Mama Sarah told her visiting grandson how she had given some of her land to relatives for the simple reason that she could not work on the entire land herself.

Being a hard worker and a determined woman, the old lady made extra coins by selling food. She also bought goods from Kisumu and sold them at the local market.

She was happy. Her only problems were the roof of the house – which was not tightly wound and thus allowed some rays of sunlight into the house – and the fact that Omar had refused to come back home.

Obama and Auma joined Granny at the market one afternoon, where all manner of items were sold. Though an African-American, Obama’s light complexion was not unnoticeable and his acts of helping Granny pick items at the market left the watching children in stitches of laughter.

“I remember Auma and myself joining Granny at the afternoon market, the same clearing where the matatu had first dropped us off, only now full of women who sat on straw mats, their smooth brown legs sticking straight out in front of them from under wide skirts,” he noted in the book.

“The sound of their (watching children) laughter as they watched me help Granny pick stems off collard greens that she had brought from Kisumu, and the nutty-sweet taste of a sugarcane stalk that one of the women put into my hand,” he added.

Mama Sarah’s good deeds will remain to inspire more hope and courage to many generations.

She was a dedicated educationist. She loved education since it gave children the capability to be self-sufficient and, unlike her, they would be at an advantage as they could read, understand and bring development to their societies. This, she said during an interview with the international press in 2014. She championed greatly for the education of the girl child.

Obama's roots in Kenya

She set up educational and vocational training centres to empower the youth. During Obama’s visit, Mama Sarah was hosting a young man identified as Geoffrey because his village did not have a school. 

Though her eyesight may have been dwindling with age, her vistas were futuristic, just as her vision.

Standing firmly in Kogelo is Senator Obama Kogelo Secondary School and a sports and vocational training centre that was commissioned by Obama in July 2018. Mama Sarah’s hands did not miss a single step through their construction and opening. She was ahead of her times.

Granny was an excellent cook, a fact that her grandson could not forget after seeing how she expertly caught a defiant rooster that had troubled Geoffrey, and slashed its neck in a mighty swoosh.

Because of her, Obama felt very much connected with his roots in Kenya. She linked him from the hollowness he felt about his uncertain past and the incoming blazing future.

“It wasn’t simply joy that I felt in each of these moments. Rather, it was a sense that everything I was doing, every touch and breath and word, carried the full weight of my life; that a circle was beginning to close, so that I might finally recognize myself as I was, here, now, in one place,” Obama wrote.

In 1992, just before Obama got married to Michelle, he flew her to Kenya to introduce her to his family, especially Granny.

The journey to Kogelo was rough and tough that Michelle was enraged at her fiancé, as captured in her book Becoming. However, after meeting Granny, her stance changed.

“I was bowled over by her easy joy,” she wrote in her memoir.

In 2006, grandmother and grandson met again, this time to celebrate the advancement of the latter, who had been elected as the Illinois senator, a year earlier. They danced and celebrated his achievements.

Barack and Sarah Obama

The then US President Barack Obama and his grandmother, Mama Sarah Obama, when he officially opened the Sauti Kuu Recreation and Resource Centre at Nyang'oma in Kogelo village, Siaya County, on July 16, 2018. 

Photo credit: Ondari Ogega | Nation Media Group

On her trip to Washington DC for the presidential inauguration in 2019, Mama Sarah carried many things, among them, maize flour. This, she said – much to the amusement of many – was to ensure that she prepared a proper meal for her grandson.

When Obama visited Kenya as the first sitting President of the United States to do so in 2015, he could not go to Kogelo due to logistical challenges that came with his office. Instead, his family and other relatives travelled to Nairobi and joined him for dinner.

Mama Sarah sat on the President’s right with Auma on his left. Language barrier wasn’t an issue. They danced, laughed and dined together. Where words could not permeate, symbols did the magic. President Obama and Granny were knitted closely.

In 2018, while launching Sauti Kuu Foundation – a sports and vocational training centre in Kogelo – the two Obamas met again, as the grandson, now as former US President, launched the centre. They were inextricably interlaced by love and a visceral understanding of each other.

At 99, Mama Sarah has bowed out and was buried on Tuesday in Kogelo. However, whatever she stood and championed for has proved an education enthusiast who was well ahead of her times, as former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, stated in his condolence message. 

Fare thee well Mama Sarah.

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