Sarah Obama was “a bridge to the past” for the 44th president of the US.
His parents were Ann Dunham, an American woman originally from Kansas, and Barack Hussein Obama Senior, who came from Kolego – a small village located northwest of Nairobi, near the Ugandan border – to study in the US.
Barack Obama shared only a few moments with his father, who abandoned him when he was only two years old. He only saw his father once more when he was 10 years old for a day in Hawaii, before he disappeared. This was the only and final meeting between father and son. It marked the beginning of an identity crisis for the teenager, who was tormented by this African identity about which he knew very little.
It was thanks to Sarah Ogwel Onyango Obama, as well as others, that he learned about his family on the continent and the history of his father, who died tragically in a car accident in 1982.
“A stabilising force”
Upon the announcement of Sarah Obama’s death on 29 March at the age of 99, in a hospital in Kisumu, western Kenya, Obama posted a heartfelt last tribute to his “Granny” on his Instagram account.
The former president said he mourns the loss of “a steady and stabilising force”, a matriarch whose “small home built of mud-and thatch brick and without electricity or indoor plumbing” was “a refuge for her children and grandchildren.”
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta also paid tribute to the memory of a “strong and virtuous woman, a matriarch who united the Obama family” and “an icon of family values.”
Born in 1922 in Nyanza province on the shores of Lake Victoria, Sarah Obama was the third wife of Hussein Onyango Obama, a prominent British Army veteran from Burma and Obama’s paternal grandfather.
In fact, Sarah was not related to the former US president by blood. But no matter. When asked about the nature of her relationship with Barack Obama, she said that it was “special” and that it was primarily due to the fact that she raised Obama Senior.
Sarah Obama, who was illiterate herself, attached great importance to her children’s education. “Granny raised my father as her own,” says the former president. “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.”
Barack Senior flew to the US in the late 1950s and earned a master’s degree in economics at the prestigious Harvard University.
“He is African”
It was not until 1987 that Barack Obama forged a strong bond with Sarah. In search of answers about his roots, he traveled to Kenya, to Kolego, the village of his ancestors. There he discovered all his brothers and sisters, his cousins, his aunts and above all “Granny”, whom he listened to religiously.
Sarah gazed at the 27-year-old light-skinned man she had heard so much about. She called him “Barry”. There was no doubt in her mind that Barack Junior looked like her father. “He is African,” she said. Nevertheless, Obama needed a translator because Sarah only spoke the Luo language.
Sitting in front of her small house, she told the future US president the story of her family as well as the political rise and fall of her father, whose body now lies in the family plot. “These stories helped to fill a void,” says Barack Obama, and gave rise to chapter 3 of his book Dreams from My Father, published in 1995.
Over the years, Sarah Obama became an unwavering supporter of her grandson. The walls of her house were lined with Obama’s election campaign posters and she was always quick to defend him. A devout churchgoer, she denied the rumours that Obama was Muslim and that he hadn’t been born on US soil, which could have excluded him from the 2008 presidential campaign.
When internal divisions shook the family, she always took a step back. When one of her grandsons told the New York Times that Obama had not heard from them since he became president, she cut to the chase by saying that she was currently on the phone with the White House tenant.
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At every milestone in his life, Barack Obama flew to Kenya to see his “Granny”, as if to get her approval. He returned in 1991 to introduce Michelle, who discovered “a small, wide, wise-eyed, ever-smiling woman”, as she recounts in her book Becoming. Then in 2006, when he was a senator from Illinois and already had the 2008 presidential election in mind, he went back to Nairobi.
In 2015, he went to Nairobi for an official visit as President of the US. For security reasons, he couldn’t visit his village. He settled instead for a meal in the capital surrounded by his family, including Sarah. It was not until 2018, two years after leaving office, that he returned to the land of his ancestors. This was probably the last time he would visit the country and the last time he saw Sarah Obama.
A philanthropist granny
In Kenya, she was nicknamed “Mama Sarah”. After her grandson came to power in 2009, she continued to live a modest life away from the cameras, although the once rustic family home has been modernised and there is no lack of electricity and running water.
Kolego is emerging from its slumber as one of Kenya’s most famous and touristy villages, designated as a protected national heritage site by the government. The airport in Kimisu – a major town in the region – is also being brought up to international standards.
Sarah took advantage of the goodwill she had gained through her grandson’s election to run humanitarian projects in her area. She set up her own foundation to help orphans in Siaya County, northeast of Lake Victoria, by providing them with education and shelter.
She also got involved in empowering the girls of her region. Through the Sarah Obama Library, she helped distribute more than 7,000 books to rural areas. Her commitment to making education accessible was recognised in 2014 by the UN, which awarded her the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Education Pioneer Award.
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