NEW YORK — The only surviving grandparent of President Barack Obama, 94-year-old Mama Sarah Obama, as she prefers to be called, is visiting the United States, in part to raise money to build a $12 million educational and medical center in her community of Kogelo, Kenya.
She was honored with an award at a Women’s Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans, particularly widows and orphans.
Mama Obama, who was a stepmother to the president’s father, Barack Obama, told a U.N. audience that her great cause is education. As a girl, she said, she was not allowed to go to school or even taught how to read. She had to depend on her children later to read letters to her.
She also recalled how she used to take the elder Barack by bicycle nearly 10 kilometers to school every day. According to press reports, the president calls her “Granny Sarah.”
Debra Akello, director of the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation, served as interpreter for Mrs. Obama, who spoke in her native language, Luo.
“She says she never went to school; she was denied an education, but she loves education,” Akello said. “So that’s why all her kids, she made them go to school, even Barack Obama Sr., because when they learn, that’s when they can be self-sufficient, they can help themselves. That’s why she wants every child to study, not just hers.”
Plans ‘cycle of life’ campus
In a video made by the foundation, Mama Sarah Obama recounts that her plan for a “cycle of life” campus to serve needy children in Kogelo came to her in a vision as she was sitting under a mango tree.
Burkina Faso-born architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, who is based in Germany and known for his environmentally sustainable buildings, has designed a plan that will include an early childhood education center, a primary and secondary school, a vocational training school and a medical center.
Mrs. Obama is “living on borrowed time,” Akello said at the U.N. “So she’s here also to ask for resources so we can build this, so Mama can see it while she is still alive.”
The foundation says that so far it has raised $100,000 of the $250,000 needed for the first building, the early childhood education center.