She bears a famous name, but U.S. President Barack Obama’s only surviving grandparent has become something of a celebrity not just for her family connections, but advocacy for needy children. She is 94, and at her age, many people would likely be mainly in the house, tendering creaking bones and contemplating their mortality. But not Mama Sarah Obama.
In her twilight years, Mama Sarah – as she is popularly called – has devoted herself to helping orphans and widows, and giving hope where there has long been none. She never attended school but works passionately to empower children – especially girls – through education, and last year won a UN award for her work. She describes her advocacy for children as “God’s work” and notes with considerable pride, the number of her “children” – at least 10 that she can easily remember – who have gone to college or university.
“What I am most proud of is giving children education because these are future leaders,” she said in an interview, speaking through daughter and interpreter, Marsat Onyango. “When you educate someone, you are not helping only one person because the one you are educating will go on to help others.”
Mama Sarah, who was in Ottawa last week to speak about her charitable work, is actually the president’s step-grandmother, the widow of his paternal grandfather, and the woman who actually raised his father, Barack Sr. Many came to see the woman Obama called “granny” in his auto biography, Dreams from My Father, and some like me came to take the measure of the woman who helped the president piece together a part of his family history he never knew.
She proved to be a class act – warm, humble, gracious, and accommodating to everyone who wanted to speak to her, shake hands or pose for pictures with her. Though she walks with a cane, Mama Sarah is physically and mentally strong for her age, travelling across continents to drum up support for the work of the foundation that bears her name. Having long worked to help orphaned children in her hometown of Kogelo, she launched the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation a year after her grandson became president, seizing the opportunity to help many more children who were wasting away for lack of opportunity. In an interview, she reminisced about growing up in 1920s Kenya, when most girls never had a chance to go to school, but resolved to make sure today’s girls don’t miss out like she did.
The Obama name obviously helps because it is the reason many people are drawn to her in the first place, and it has no doubt helped open doors that might otherwise be closed. But it is refreshing have someone who understands the responsibility that comes with a famous family name, and uses it for public good, instead of private gain. She doesn’t talk much about her grandson, but often uses him as an inspiration for others, pointing to his remarkable success as a great example of how far education can take those who embrace it.
She notes that Obama, in many ways, is very much like his father, whom she watched grow up from a boy into a man.
“Barack (Sr.) was a very smart boy, very intelligent and hardworking, and his son is very much like his father,” she says.
Mama Sarah recalled the indescribable joy that she and other family members felt when Obama became president, something no one ever dreamt of, or imagined. The historic event, she said, reminded her of something the president’s father once told her – though she did not think much of it at the time. “Barack (Sr.) told me that he has a son in America and one day the boy will be a leader somewhere. I didn’t take it seriously when he said it, but on the day of the election, I saw what he meant,” she says. Now the whole family is waiting with excitement for Obama’s visit to his ancestral homeland this summer.
Mohammed Adam is an Ottawa writer.
In establishing a lasting educational resource for underserved and at-risk youth in Kenya, The Mama Sarah Obama Legacy project is the culmination of Mama Sarah’s lifetime of service towards helping orphans and impoverished families feed and educate their children. After years of feeding and clothing children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, Mama Sarah established her foundation with the goal of making a larger impact on their lives. Despite having never obtained formal education herself, she believes strongly in the transformative and empowering impact of education.
Located in the birthplace of President Barack Obama’s father, the Legacy project is an educational campus that will serve upwards of one thousand students and pre-schoolers. The project is comprised of three major components; a secondary school, a primary school, and an early childhood development center. The Secondary and Primary schools will support students aged seven to eighteen. The Early Childhood Development Center supports infants and children aged two to six. In promoting a sustainable approach to community-strengthening and education, the campus design embraces the notion of a chain of knowledge physically and programmatically. Each school is uniquely designed for its specific age group and is supplemented by age-appropriate playgrounds and sports fields.
The Early Childhood Development Center includes a nursery, playrooms, nap rooms and its own private outdoor play space. The Primary and Secondary schools each have their own libraries, science labs and media labs. The architecture of the campus is an aspirational tool; where the dynamic spaces and buildings inspire students to advance to the next academic level.
Despite the common shared boundaries of the campus, it was important that each school was designed with its own entrance, courtyard, and private garden space. This allows for each age-group of students to have their own respective space for studying and socializing, without disrupting the other age-groups. Two different types of outdoor space where developed for each school that help to facilitate this division. Each school has its own courtyard for high-energy activity such as socializing and playing. Each school also has its own private garden space for studying, quite reflection and low-volume chatting. Although the schools operate completely individually from each other, they are united through a variety of shared public spaces such as an auditorium, sports fields, and cafeteria. These community-focused spaces will support special assemblies, school celebrations, and sporting events not only for the schools but for the surrounding community as well.
The Mama Sarah Obama Foundation is actively raising funds to support this much needed educational resource in Kogelo.
You can also view a short documentary about Mama Sarah Obama and the Legacy project.
STATUS: In Development
SITE: Kogelo / Kenya
SIZE: 12 Hectares
CLIENT: Mama Sarah Obama Foundation
Burkinabe Architect Diebedo Francis Kere, respected worldwide for designing buildings ecologically and socially adequate to their environment, an art that has earned him awards galore and lecture stints at leading universities, is soon to undertake his first project in Kenya. Kere, 48 has been selected to design the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation (MSOF) in Kogelo village, Siaya County, Kenya an initiative by President Barack Obama’s step grandmother. The architect, probably well known for designing the Gando School, which had the full participation of the Gando people including the school children, will have a chance to do the same for the people of Kogello.
The MSOF’s mission is to improve the education and welfare of disenfranchised children in order to help them successfully achieve their goals and have a better future. Today, Mama Sarah has developed a vision for her legacy that will build upon her actions, accomplishments and resources to make a lasting impression on the causes she believes in. This vision is being implemented through her work at the Foundation, and includes the construction of an Early Childhood Development Center, Rehabilitation of a Primary and Secondary School, Construction of a Medical Center and a Vocational Training Center as well as establishment of the Mama Sarah Scholarship Fund.
Kere was recently in Kenya to witness the launch of foundation and has already dealt with the master planning aspects of the project.
– As Prepared
Hamjambo, mabibi na mabwana. Habari za mchana!
Since 2009, the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation has worked to build strong households by supporting poverty-stricken families. Since 2007, Envirofit International has worked to reduce indoor air pollution through economically-sustainable enterprises in emerging markets. Together, these two organizations have done amazing things in Kenya to promote the use of clean cook stoves, empowering women as they work to build stronger foundations for their homes and families. I am honored to celebrate the success of this collaboration. Thank you to the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation and Envirofit for the invitation to join you today.
Indoor air pollution – pollution from traditional cook stoves – is a problem that affects millions of people around the world, but it is a problem that gets too little attention. If you have experienced smoke from an open fire or poorly functioning stove indoors, in a home or a school kitchen, you know the smell and soot in the air is unforgettable. Over time, breathing in that toxic smoke puts you at risk for cancers, pneumonia, and other respiratory infections. Indeed, it can kill you. And those who suffer most are women and children, because women are the ones tending to the family meal and school children often study by the weak light of an open flame.
All of us are stewards of our environment, and we have a responsibility to protect the health and well-being of our families and of future generations. Improving the health of our children allows them to perform better in school, become productive members of society, and live longer, healthier lives. Raising healthy kids means a smaller burden on the health sector and a stronger economy.
Clean cooking solutions are a simple, direct way to solve the problem of unhealthy indoor air and improve the lives of millions of people, while also reducing fuel consumption. To promote clean cooking, Envirofit unites clean energy research with consumer-driven product design. They now produce over 100,000 stoves annually and have a presence in over 20 countries in Africa. Kenya is Envirofit’s production base for all of Africa. The investments made here have improved the lives of more than one million Kenyans and have generated more than 1,000 jobs in Kenya alone.
I was fortunate to participate in Envirofit’s launch of their institutional stove at Makini School back in March. I was very impressed by the demonstration Envirofit gave us – the stoves reduce fuel consumption by 90 percent!
Today’s event is another significant achievement for both Envirofit and the Mama Sarah Foundation, but is also a significant event for Siaya County and the women in this room. Because of their partnership, this site will serve as a demonstration center for others to learn about clean cooking solutions, creating jobs and distributing efficient, safer technologies to the Kenyan people.
The United States has a long history of supporting the clean cookstove sector in Kenya. From the launch of the Global Alliance by former Secretary of State Clinton in 2010 to the American companies working here, the United States is committed to supporting the development of a robust market for clean and healthy cooking solutions in Kenya. The United States is also committed to addressing some of the health concerns related to indoor air pollution. Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, in partnership with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, conducted an evaluation that looked at performance and acceptability of improved stoves in Kenya. CDC is looking at taking this research a step further to determine whether there has been a reduction of respiratory diseases due to improved indoor air quality so we can quantify some of these benefits.
The United States has been a strong partner to Kenya for the past 50 years. We have worked together on countless initiatives and projects during that time to improve the health and livelihoods of Kenyans and strengthen the Kenyan economy. Today’s launch, and the clean cook stove movement in general, is a good example of how the United States and Kenya, and the public and private sectors, continue to make positive changes for millions of people. We look forward to making these partnerships even stronger in the coming years.
I would like to thank the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation and Envirofit again for their extraordinary work, and to congratulate them on this event. The United States is proud to be a part of this important work. Keep up the good work.
Thank you. Asenteni sana.
US President Barack Obama’s grandmother Sarah Obama, is on a mission to mobilize resources and improve livelihoods.
The Mama Sarah Obama Foundation (MSOF) seeks to change lives through the construction of an Early Childhood Development Centre, rehabilitation of Senator Barack Obama Primary and secondary schools, construction of a health clinic and development of a vocational skills centre.
Speaking during the launch of the foundation at Kempinski Hotel, Nairobi on Thursday, Mama Sarah reiterated that even though she never went to school, she understands the value of education.
It pains me when children do not get an education and are left in the streets to beg. This is a job I do without a salary. I never went to school but I like school and that is why I taught the father of the most powerful man in the world,” she said.
The 94-year-old grandmother’s mission is to improve the education and welfare of disenfranchised children in order to help them successfully achieve their goals and have a better future.
“I want to build a school for the children of Kenya. They are smart. I want children to get good education even though I never stepped into a classroom. Education is life, if somebody holds a pen, they will do well and are assured of bright future,” she said.
Her legacy plan seeks to engage and empower local communities to invest in the futures of their children starting from birth, by collectively participating as key community stakeholders.
The Mama Sarah Obama Foundation helps approximately 100 children with food, tuition assistance, and other basic supplies annually. She was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the Great Lakes University for her work.
Standard Group CEO Sam Shollei lauded Mama Sarah’s initiatives for changing her community and the country by helping others selflessly. He expressed his admiration for the humble work she has begun.
“We should all emulate Mama Sarah’s work to transform Kenya. Nobody but us will transform our country. If we do not make a difference, then who will?” Shollei posed.
Mama Sarah also honoured Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Resident Coordinator of the United Nations System in Kenya, Nardos Bekele-Thomas, for her dedication to the empowerment of women and youth through programmes that provide meaningful opportunities for people in all corners of the globe. Nardos praised the grandmother for her exemplary efforts in caring for the orphans and needy children by transforming their lives to be productive and meaningful.
“You have shown us the way to be giving, sharing and bring so much happiness and satisfaction. You are a leading example and I wish to see many hearts transformed through Mama Sarah Foundation,” she said.
Former envoy to the US Elkanah Odembo, a member of the steering committee, noted that the legacy plan reflects the dreams of Mama Sarah. “Granny talks about the education of children doesn’t start from class one. She says they must be nurtured, taken care off before they go to school and also wants to make sure youths have a first class vocational training so that they can be productive citizens,” he said.
The foundation was established after years of hard work helping orphans and poverty-stricken families feed and educate their children.
It was indeed a night to remember, in more ways than one. It was the inaugural award to celebrate individuals making a difference in the lives of ordinary citizens.
Mama Sarah Obama tells about her success during Transform Kenya Awards.
And it was also a night that brought together corporate partners promoting this worthy venture.
The common denominator was the organizer, the standard group who hosted this ceremony at the Windsor hotel with the KCB as the main sponsor.
Sam Shollei to Support Mama Sarah Obama in setting up foundation to support needy children
Standard group CEO Sam Shollei has this evening pledged support towards the start of an early childhood learning centre to be based in kogello, tha land of U.S Barack Obama’s father.. The partnership with the mama Sarah Obama foundation will see children from the village gain meaningful education that will better their future. Speaking during the announcement at the villa rosa in westlands, Sam Shollei expressed his admiration for the humble work mama sarah has begun and hoped more would emulate her. Mama Sarah will also feature in the upcoming Transform Kenya Awards to be held this Saturday sponsored by the Standard Group.
On Sept 4th 2014 Mama sarah Obama foundation will be Launching Mama Sarah Obama Legacy plan of great schools in kogelo kenya.
Seats are limited to purchase your ticket call Skye Planners at 0730112115
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.
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.
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.
Kisumu – Mama Sarah Obama, the step-grandmother to U.S.A President, Barack Obama, and the Principal of Maranda High School, Boaz Owino, was among 15 people in Bondo sub-County awarded medals by the state for their distinct contribution to society.
Awarding the Head of State Commendation (HSC) medals to the recipients, Nyanza regional Commissioner, Francis Mutie, said the government recognises the role being played by civilians in improving the lives of their fellow Kenyans.
He called on other Kenyans of goodwill to come forth and help the less fortunate in the society by initiating programmes to alleviate the suffering of the vulnerable by empowering them economically.
Mama Sarah Obama, who is also UN goodwill ambassador for nutrition, was awarded for her contribution through the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation (MSOF) that helps orphans and poor families to access education.
Speaking after the award, Maranda High School Principal, Boaz Owino, said his school is determined to continue excelling in national examinations despite two fire tragedies that hit the school this year.
“We spent KES 25 million to rebuild the school and we intend to install CCTV cameras in the school by next year to ensure such incidences are not repeated,” he noted.
Maranda has been posting exemplary performance in Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examinations in the past few years, with over 200 students having beien able to join University.
Also recognised for his contribution to society was a University don, Boniface Otieno Orario, the chairman of Obunga slums community policing unit.