Obama’s Grandma Helps Kenyan Orphans

Sitting next to Sarah Obama, you wouldn’t know that her step-grandson is the president of the United States. Leaning back in a plastic chair, dressed in a simple green shift with traditional Kenyan striping, she thoughtfully takes in the visitors seated beneath 2 enormous mango trees. At 87, her body has slowed with age, but her watchful eyes capture everything happening around her.

For as long as she can remember, Mama Sarah Obama has been helping children, including 5 orphans now living with her. Photo by Debbie DeVoe/CRS

This somewhat shy, gracious woman is known as Mama Sarah in the Kenyan village of Kogelo. She gained the nickname by serving as mother to hundreds of children who needed some extra love and care. Now she is partnering with Catholic Relief Services to help them a little more.

A Lifelong Humanitarian

Ever since Mama Sarah married President Obama’s Kenyan grandfather, she’s been helping kids in need. Over the last 40 years, dozens of children have lived in her home, and hundreds of others have received help through the Mama Sarah Obama Children’s Foundation. The majority have lost one or both parents to HIV or are living in dire poverty. Mama Sarah focuses on 2 key things: making sure the children have enough to eat and helping them get an education.

“I wish [people] could bring more support so I can help more orphans so they can learn,” Mama Sarah says. Since her grandson became president, visits to the Obama homestead have increased. Appointments must now be made in advance. A guard stands sentry at the front gate, having visitors sign a guestbook and keeping them from entering the compound before Mama Sarah is ready to welcome them.

CRS staff first visited the compound back in July 2008 when doing a general assessment for the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative. Mama Sarah’s was one of many households interviewed to find out if any cassava was still growing in the area after disease nearly destroyed the crop in the 1980s. The survey found almost no cassava plants left, making Kogelo an ideal location for the program, which uses funding from the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation to grow and distribute disease-resistant cassava plants.

Filling Bellies With Cassava

Speaking in her native tongue of Luo, Mama Sarah explains that years ago, cassava was the most popular and plentiful food. Villagers would grind the cassava root with sorghum to make flour for ugali, a traditional food like a gummy polenta cake.

“One tin of cassava-sorghum flour can feed 5 children,” Mama Sarah says. “One tin of maize flour and children will ask for more. Maize is still viewed here more as a snack, not a full meal.”

“When the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative came to Kogelo with cassava, it was hot news,” adds Nelson Ochieng, manager of the Obama homestead and foundation. “Forty-two households each received a bundle of 25 sticks [cuttings]. Ten of those were families with orphans we assist.”

Drought hit shortly after the first distribution, and many of the disease-resistant cassava plants died. The program later gave 70 families additional plants, which are now growing well. Two farmers are also growing disease-resistant plants.

“If people can get cassava back, it will be such a good thing,” Mama Sarah says.

One of the Kogelo farmers already benefiting from the new cassava plants is Maria Akuku, who cares for 5 of her grandchildren as well as 2 orphaned godchildren.

“The other species of cassava weren’t doing well. You would plant your cassava and they would wither,” Maria says. “Now with the new breeds there is enough food. When I want to have breakfast, I don’t have to buy bread. I can come to my field, take a few roots and boil them for breakfast. Now my family won’t go without food.”

Greater Hope, Greater Need

Since President Obama’s election, little has changed at the Obama farm in Kogelo. The government brought electricity to the village the day after the election and set up a police patrol base nearby, but there is still no running water, and roads remain unpaved.

Mama Sarah receives disease-resistant plants from the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative. Photo by Carl D. Walsh for CRS

The greatest change for Mama Sarah has been heightened interest in her work. Increased donations allowed her to formally register the foundation and expand the number of children she assists. The foundation now provides medical and educational support to 83 orphans attending the Senator Obama Primary School and 28 orphans at the Senator Obama Secondary School. Mama Sarah is also working to build a kindergarten and repair classrooms at the schools named in honor of her grandson.

“I’m helping these children to be in charge of their own lives,” Mama Sarah says. “I’m doing this to help them not be street children. The most important thing is for them to go to school.”

The need in Kogelo is so great that the foundation only assists 1 orphan per household. The aim is to help families along without creating long-term dependence. Mama Sarah also continues to care for children in her own home, including 5 who all lost their fathers.

“The Great Lakes Cassava Initiative has the potential to solve most of the problems of the orphans,” Nelson notes. The cassava plants give poor families a renewable food source and an income stream, as farmers can also sell cuttings of the disease-resistant plants. By enabling families to grow food themselves, the initiative reduces reliance on food donations, he says.

“There is a lot of renewed hope among the young people in Kenya and here in Kogelo. This hope is also creating some challenges,” Nelson adds. “Everyone wants to go to school now like Obama, but there are limited resources. It is a very good thing, but we need help.”

Debbie DeVoe is a freelance writer who has traveled to more than 10 countries for CRS.