Granny Obama Puts Kenya Town on Map

Kenya 2012

By Sanchita Sharma

June 22, 2012

Also published at Hindustan TImes

Mama Sarah Obama sits in front of her home in Kogelo, western Kenya.

Mama Sarah Obama, 90, is Kisumu's biggest tourist attraction, even bigger than Lake Victoria, the world's second largest freshwater lake that hugs this town in western Kenya.

Since her step-grandson Barack Obama became President and a Very Important Person, the road to her house has been named after her, her neighbourhood has got its own police station and a levelled road, and her home has a high fence, armed guards and a civil servant to "take care of her". A board at the gate lists the visiting hours: Mon-Fri 10-5 pm, Saturdays 10-4 pm.

Other signs of recent prosperity include a larger house under construction and several cows in her home in Kogelo, an hour's drive from Kisumu.

"She turned from an ordinary village Mama --- term of respect for a matriarch -- to a celebrity overnight. She'd started getting so many visitors that now she meets people by appointment only," says Duncan Okall, a counsellor with the health department in Kisumu.

Mama Sarah Obama sits in front of her home in Kogelo, western Kenya.

Mama Sarah turns out to be far less intimidating than the road leading up to her home. Dressed in a traditional Luo -- the tribe she belongs to -- dress with coordinated beads, she spends over an hour with us under a mango tree, surrounded by chicken, turkeys, rabbits, sheep and a cat.

Has life changed for her since her step-grandson -- she is the third wife of President Obama's paternal grandfather -- became the US President?

"Nothing has changed, except I get a lot more visitors from foreign lands," says Mama Sarah, speaking in Luo.

"In some ways it is good, it helps me raise money for orphans and widows," she says. She runs the Mama Sarah Children's Foundation, which pays for the care and education of orphans who've lost their parents to AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

US President Obama's ancestral home in Kogelo, western Kenya.

Photo: Sanchita Sharma / Hindustan Times

Mama Sarah is an odd mix of progression and tradition.

Though she never went to school and got married at 19 -- her father got a dozen cows from President Obama's grandpa for her as bride price -- she believes everyone, including all girls, should go to school and be independent. A practising Muslim, she says she prays at home mostly because the mosque is too far away.

She is a conservative and against abortion, women using contraception to plan their families, and women having equal inheritance rights as men.

"If God gives you reproductive ability, you should reproduce. With so many babies dying after birth, the more the better," says Mama Sarah, who had eight children, six of whom are still alive.

She's against the new Kenyan law that proposes women get equal inheritance rights. "When a woman marries, her husband gives dowry she becomes part of that (husband's) family and that land. If they inherit their father's land, daughters will compete with boys," he says.

What about who don't marry?

"They get nothing," she chuckles.

President Obama met his grandmother during his first visit to Kenya, at the age of 27, and visited her again when he was senator. There's a secondary school named Senator Obama just down the road.

"I've visited him twice, once for the inaugural," she says.

Security around her was beefed up after a threat from Al Shabaab, Somali Islamists linked to al-Qaeda, after Osama bin Laden was killed in May last year.

"I'm pleased with what Barack's doing, I only want peace. I also want him to find a cure for this disease (AIDS) that's bothering so many people," she says.

Kisumu district has the worst health indicators in Kenya, with more than one in 30 women, HIV prevalence of 14.9% (compared to Kenya's 7.1%) and three in five children infected with malaria.

And her views on painting her house white to have a White House in Kenya?

"Send me the paint and I'll do it," she laughs.