Adam: Mama Sarah Obama is a class act

imageShe 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.



Global Women Power at Washington, D.C.’s Willard Hotel

pic1Did you know President Obama has a grandmother living in Kenya? In honor of UN’s International Woman’s Day, GB Group Global presented leadership awards to extraordinary global women. The first award went to Mama Sarah Obama. A poignant film was shown about the work of the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation which “improves the education and welfare of disenfranchised children.”

The GB Group Global describe themselves as “fostering meaningful relationships across borders.” In addition to Mama Sarah Obama, awards were given before a packed house to President Dr. Joyce Banda, the first female president of the Republic of Malawi & Africa’s second woman president; H.E. Ambassador Amina Salum Ali, head honcho of the African Union representing 54 countries, Ms Isabel Dos Santos, Africa’s first woman billionaire; Ms Fumbi Chima, Chief Information Officer of Walmart-Asia; and Ms Joan Wages, President/CEO of the National Women’s History Museum.

The event was organized by GB Group Global & international publicist Jan Du Plain. Mistress of Ceremony was award-winning TV anchor & reporter Maureen Umeh of Washington DC’s Fox 5 News. Welcome remarks were delivered by Dr. Estelle-Marie Heussen, COO, GB Group Global, who talked about the remarkable achievements of women throughout the world. –

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Obama matriarch gets UN education award

obama_granny 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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Obama’s Step-Grandmother Continues Educating Young Kenyans

Sarah Obama, left, and her translator, Mama Sarah Obama Foundation Executive Director Debra Akello, spoke at the United Nations on Wednesday.

The United States has seen many fundraisers headlined by an Obama in recent years, but this week it won’t be the president or the first lady — it will be his step-grandmother, Sarah Obama, who is raising funds to build a school and hospital in her hometown, Kogelo, Kenya.

Obama, who runs the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation and was honored with an Education Pioneer award at the United Nations on Wednesday as part of its Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, has spent much of her life helping young people — and particularly young women — in her region get an education.

President Obama’s last surviving grandparent, whom he referred to as Granny in his memoir Dreams from My Father, never went to school herself, she tells NPR’s Scott Simon through an interpreter.

“It was very hard for women to get an education,” when she was growing up, the 94-year-old Obama says. “Only young boys or men were allowed to go to school.”

But things are different in Kenya now, she says. United Nations data actually shows a higher percentage of Kenyan girls going to school than Kenyan boys.

“I encourage them — even the ones who have had families at a young age — I encourage them to go to school so that the cycle of poverty can end,” Obama says. She sometimes uses her grandson as an example of the doors an education can open.

Often, Obama says, she and her foundation provide much more than encouragement.

“I help the orphans and widows, especially the young girls who have been orphaned by their parents dying of HIV,” she says. “I am their sole parent right now, so I help them pay school fees and also get them the things that they need, like sanitary towels, books, necessities like a pencil, school uniforms. That’s what I do.”

It’s an investment that Sarah Obama says she gets an unbeatable return on.

“There’s so many kids that I’ve helped educate, some of them at Nairobi University, Moi University and also Bondo University,” she says. “These are orphans who I’ve helped pay for their school fares, and now it’s my joy to see them in the universities about to graduate. There’s a lot of success stories, and it just makes me happy and it keeps me going.”



Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

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.



Straight Talk Africa with Mama Sarah Obama

Host Shaka Ssali sits down with Mama Sarah Obama for an exclusive interview to discuss her hopes for her foundation and the legacy she wants to leave behind. Pre- Taped Interview: Sarah Obama, Grandmother of U.S. President Barack Obama and Founder of Mama Sarah Obama Foundation Washington Studio Guests: Said Obama, Uncle of U.S. President and CEO of Mama Sarah Obama Foundation and Debra Akello, U.S. Executive Director of the Mama Sarah Obama Foundationmama_sarah2-1



Kere Architecture Releases Plans for Mama Sarah Obama Legacy


legacy1We had earlier mentioned of reknown architect Francis Diebedo Kere making foray into the Kenyan architectural scene. Kere Architecture has just recently released plans on the Mama Sarah Obama Legacy centre in Kogelo, an earthen fell to the architecture that he has been reknown for.legacy2


From the Project Architects
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.legacy3


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.legacy4


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.legacy5


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.

Architects: Kere Architecture
Status: In Development
Site: Kogelo / Kenya
Size: 12 Hectares
Client: Mama Sarah Obama Foundation