By Tom Osanjo
Nairobi, 13 April 2021—A visit to Sarah Obama’s home in Kogelo, some 300 miles west of Nairobi would
not be complete without a cup of well brewed English tea. Which was kind of befitting for the woman
whose husband Hussein Onyango Obama- President Barack Obama’s grandfather- was a cook in the
British colonial army, as this writer found out in a 2018 visit.
Although lacking formal education Sarah, who died aged 99 on March 29, was awarded a honorary
doctorate degree by Kenya’s Great Lakes University, underscoring the appeal of being Kenya’s most
famous and written about grandmother. The PhD was in addition to her work as Goodwill Ambassador
of Inter-Governmental Institution for the use of Micro-Algae Spirulina against Malnutrition.
With a toothy smile and an open manner, Sarah’s village life was ruffled when her famous stepson was
elected President in 2008 and her home turned into a tourist attrction. However, readers of President
Obama’s book had met her in the pages of his book ‘Dreams from my Father’ which the former presdent
wrote after taking a self-discovery journey to Kenya I search of his roots. There are photos of a young
Obama accompanying Sarah to the local market o sell kales, a popular vegetable in Kenya.
But it was in defence of Barack that Sarah would come alive. This was more evident when the birthers
movement came totown with claims that Obama was not born in the United States as he had claimed
but that the former head of state was born in Kenya.
Sarah who took the Islamic faith of her husband Hussein, was also categorical that her step grandson
was never a Muslim but a Christian. Incredulously and in a case of sibling rivalry stretched a little bit too
far, the president’s half brother Malik supported the birthers and took every opportunity to make snide
remarks against his more successful half brother.
Sibling rivalry or not, Malik, a man given to outrageous claims, saw no irony in riding in his half brother’s
soaring political fortunes. In his home a few meters from Sarah’s, Malik proudly flew a huge Star
Spangled Banner as well as the Kenyan flag, putting him into constant loggerheads with local
government officials. Under Kenyan law private citizens are not allowed to fly the national flag, with the
honor being rserved for government buildings and offices as well as top government officials.
But the fight for Obama as he transited from Illinois Senator to vie for the US presidency was also taken
up by the Kenyan government. In 2008, author Jeremiah Corsi tried to launch his book, The Obama
Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality in Kenya which sought to portray Obama as a
dangerous Muslim not fir to be US president.
According to press reports then, Corsi’s book claimed the Illinois senator was a dangerous, radical
candidate for president and included innuendoes and false rumors- that he was raised a Muslim and
attended a radical black church. The book also says Obama is secretly seething with “black rage.”
For his troubles, the Kenya government deported Corsi.
Back to Sarah and it was at the Mama Sarah Obama Children Foundation that she ran that she seemed
to derive a lot of pleasure from. Apart from taking care of underprivileged children, the organization also
held the annual The Sowo Mama Sarah Obama K’Ogelo Marathon, an annual event which also serves to
advocate for the rights of widows, orphans and the vulnerable. Some top athletes who honed their
talent from the race include Philadelphia Half Marathon record holder Mathew Kisorio.
In death Sarah was mourned by the powerful. President Uhuru Kenyatta said: The passing away of
Mama Sarah is a big blow to our nation. We've lost a strong, virtuous woman, a matriarch who held
together the Obama family and was an icon of family value.”
In his message of condolence, President Obama said: 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, stabilizing force. When I
first traveled 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.”
In her book, Becoming, Michelle Obama says of Sarah: “Granny Sarah, they called her. She was a short,
wide-built lady with wise eyes and a crinkling smile. She spoke no English, only Luo and expressed
delight that we had come all this way to see her.
She studied me with an extra, bemused curiosity, as if trying to place where I came from and how
precisely I’d landed on her doorstep.”