Barack Obama's tribute to his grandmother, Mama Sarah Obama

Barack and Sarah Obama

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

Photo credit: Courtesy

What you need to know:

  • When I first travelled to Kenya to learn more about my heritage and father, who had passed away by then, it was Granny who served as a bridge to the past, and it was her stories that helped fill a void in my heart.

Former US President Barack Obama has fond memories of his grandmother, Mama Sarah Obama, whom he refers to as “Dani”, the Luo word for “grandmother”.

Following her death on Monday morning due to a chest infection, Obama wrote a tribute on his social media pages.

Here is what he said:

"My family and I are mourning the loss of our beloved grandmother, Sarah Ogwel Onyango Obama, affectionately known to many as “Mama Sarah” but known to us as “Dani” or Granny.

Born in the first quarter of the last century, in Nyanza Province, on the shores of Lake Victoria, she had no formal schooling, and in the ways of her tribe, she was married off to a much older man while only a teen.

She would spend the rest of her life in the tiny village of Alego, in a small home built of mud-and thatch brick and without electricity or indoor plumbing.

There she raised eight children, tended to her goats and chickens, grew an assortment of crops, and took what the family didn’t use to sell at the local open-air market.

Although not his birth mother, Granny would raise my father as her own, and it was in part thanks to her love and encouragement that he was able to defy the odds and do well enough in school to get a scholarship to attend an American university.

When our family had difficulties, her homestead was a refuge for her children and grandchildren, and her presence was a constant, stabilising force.

When I first travelled to Kenya to learn more about my heritage and father, who had passed away by then, it was Granny who served as a bridge to the past, and it was her stories that helped fill a void in my heart.

During the course of her life, Granny would witness epochal changes taking place around the globe: world war, liberation movements, moon landings, and the advent of the computer age.

She would live to fly on jets, receive visitors from around the world, and see one of her grandsons get elected to the United States presidency.

And yet her essential spirit—strong, proud, hard-working, unimpressed with conventional marks of status and full of common sense and good humor—never changed.

We will miss her dearly, but celebrate with gratitude her long and remarkable life."

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

Tours around the world

In his 1995 book, “Dreams from My Father”, Obama writes about a visit to his paternal family’s Kogelo home, which helped launch his political career. His father died in a car accident in 1982 and was buried there.

Mama Sarah had been receiving visitors from far and wide at her Kogelo home, which became a tourist destination after her grandson assumed powerful positions in the US - first as a senator and later as President.

She equally took trips to several parts of the world for various reasons.

In 2009, she travelled to the US in a small group of close family members to attend Obama’s first inauguration as US President. They received a warm reception and were granted VIP treatment throughout the journey and their stay for two weeks.

In November 2014, Mama Sarah had an opportunity to speak at an event at the UN headquarters. 

In 2015, she was in Ottawa, Canada, on Mother's Day, courtesy of the National Capital Region's wealth of granny activist groups.

In 2018, Obama went to Kogelo while on a private, low-profile visit to Kenya, that saw him spend time with his family and his grandmother. This was his first visit after his term as President.

He had visited Kenya in 2015 on an official two-day visit as US President, meeting his family in a private meeting at a hotel in Nairobi.

Obama visited his ancestral home twice before as senator and as a young man in his 20s in 1988.

In her tribute to Mama Sarah, his half-sister, Auma Obama, said she has lost the most important person in her life.

“My heart is broken. But as I write, not able to stop the tears from pouring, I know I was blessed to have her for so long. My inspiration, my rock, my comfort zone, my safe space. Rest in peace, Dani.”


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