UNITED NATIONS — President Barack Obama’s step-grandmother received an award Wednesday for her efforts to ensure that people in her Kenyan village get what she never had — the chance to go to school.
Sarah Obama, the 94-year-old matriarch of the Obama family, received the inaugural Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Education Pioneer Award at the United Nations from 11-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis. The young actress praised Obama’s “generous spirit,” “enormous heart that defies boundaries … (and) passion for education.”
Among those whom Sarah Obama has helped are young pregnant girls, AIDS orphans and her stepson — Obama’s father.
Sarah Obama was the second wife of Obama’s grandfather and helped raise his father, Barack Obama Sr. They belong to the Luo tribe and she speaks Luo.
The president referred to her as “Granny” in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” and described meeting her during his 1988 trip to his father’s homeland and their awkwardness as they struggled to communicate. She came to his first inauguration in 2009, and he spoke about his “grandmother” again in his September speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
Sarah Obama will head to Washington on Thursday and remain in the United States until Nov. 25. She is likely to meet the president, but Debra Akello, the executive director of the new Mama Sarah Obama Foundation, said she doesn’t know when “due to security reasons.”
Sarah Obama recalled through Akello, who acted as her interpreter, that when she grew up, letters would arrive but she couldn’t read them.
She said she didn’t want her children to be illiterate, and so she made all her kids go to school.
She recalled pedaling the president’s father six miles (nine kilometers) to school on the back of her bicycle every day from the family’s home village of Kogelo to the bigger town of Ngiya to make sure he got the education that she never had.
“I love education,” Sarah Obama said, because children “learn they can be self-sufficient,” especially girls who too often had no opportunity to go to school.
“If a woman gets an education she will not only educate her family but educate the entire village,” she said.
For decades, Sarah Obama has helped orphans, raising some in her home, Akello said. The foundation helps ensure that they have enough to eat and get an education — providing school supplies, uniforms, basic medical needs and school fees.
Accepting the award, Sarah Obama said she is “living on borrowed time” and is in the United States promoting her “legacy plan” for a modern education and health complex in Kogelo that she would like to see finished before she leaves this world.
The foundation has already raised $100,000 of the $250,000 needed for the first part of building — a new Early Childhood Development Center.
The other pieces of her $12 million vision include rehabilitating the dilapidated Senator Barack Obama primary and secondary schools renamed for the president after he visited Kogelo as a senator in 2006, modernizing a modest clinic, and building a vocational center to teach youngsters who can’t go to college skills such as information technology, tailoring and carpentry.
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