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.