In the Garden of “Mama” Obama

Kenya 2012

By Juliana Resende

June 23, 2012

Also published at BR Press

Sarah Obama avisa que seu trabalho data muito antes da eleição de Barack.

Photo: Julienne Gage

Barack Obama's step-grandmother, Sarah Onyango Obama, 90, has become a tourist attraction in Kenya, homeland of the U.S. president’s paternal grandfather, Barack Obama, Sr., and the country in which she married the patriarch (his third marriage). A conservative, respected, and powerful matriarch, “Mama” Sarah has a full schedule, and is available only by appointment. “I had malaria two days ago,” she snaps to hurry her visiters along, desperately needing to rest.

She is simultaneously pampered and protected by the Kenyan government; soldiers secure her property and an interpreter/secretary/censor accompanies “Mama” Sarah at her gatherings and meetings, especially with the foreign press, as was the case with the group of 11 journalists from various countries (Brazil was represented by Juliana Resende, Executive Editor of the BR Press). Sarah Obama conversed with the group last Thursday (6/21), beneath the pleasant shadow of one of the many trees on her property, until the sun magically made an appearance.

Speaking in Luo—the dialect of her tribe—Sarah Obama has a strong presence, the carriage of an African Empress, in an impressively spirited cross between Queen Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela, preta velha[1}, and mãe-de-santo.[2]  She is, without a doubt, the most solicited, if not influential, woman in Kenya. Her nobleness can be intimidating and, with the inherent authority of her Highness, she responds to questions looking intensely and severely over all--less so directly at the person inquiring as on her absolute dependence on the filter of the translator-censor (who later admitted to being a former police officer).

An Entity

“Mama” Sarah, as she is called because of her work with orphans (the majority of whose parents have AIDS) in Kogelo—a village on the outskirts of Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya—is almost “almighty.” Ruling over her roost, she becomes frantic when her rabbits try to escape the property. They are without luxury, but extremely well cared for, compared to the generally poor conditions of dwellings in the country (lacking electricity, running water, and sewage). She also makes it clear that she does not wish to be filmed (photography was permitted, but only at the end of the meeting).

Sarah Obama currently assists 60 orphans in primary school and 25 in secondary school. “I don’t do this because I have money, but because I have help,” she says, eyes glittering. Among the donors to her foundation, which doesn’t have a website or contact information for potential donors to communicate with the “dependents” (the translator-censor suggests we leave our cards that they may contact us with instructions), are Japan (blankets), China (shoes), and the Kenyan government (food).


Sarah Obama’s social project also includes workshops for the cultivation of plants and animals; her garden is full of them. In fact, one of the reasons she points to for her good health and disposition: “Miss Obama plants her own greens and eats eggs from her own hens,” says the interpreter. Hens that in fact run free through the outside yard, just like a turkey and the adorable bunnies, who all ironically insist on doing this while “Mama” Obama warns against family planning and contraceptive methods, devoted Muslim that she is, even in a country submerged in extreme poverty.

“I am in favor of giving power to women, and education so that they can take care of themselves,” affirms Obama. Smiles of approval spread through the audience, which is hypnotized by the electrifying posture of the matriarch, and by the enchantment of the location, truly very pleasant. That is until she declares, without ceremony, that she is in favor of women being struck by their husbands. Whether she herself had been beaten by Obama’s grandfather, no one had the courage to ask. “Mama” had eight children (two are deceased) and ten grandchildren.  She got married when she was 19 years old, and never went to school. She lives with three orphans and a modest staff of employees.

Sarah doesn’t like to talk about Obama. She prefers her own projects, little explained in detail.  In reality, she spoke little with the president, and his wife, Michelle, who have already visited the grandmother twice; there is a language barrier. Sarah avoids too much forced intimacy. “My work dates further back than Barack’s election,” she affirms. But the hype around the relationship grew after her grandson took over the White House; she was celebrated by the U.S. Ambassador in Kenya, who hosted Mama as a guest of honor.

The elderly woman, while swearing she receives no help whatsoever from Obama, though she acknowledges the good publicity, speaks with familiarity about her indirect grandson: “People here ask me to send messages to him, but I don’t inconvenience him; he’s very busy and has a lot to do.” For example? “To help find a cure for diseases and to bring world peace.” Peace, for Mrs. Obama, is what Kenyans lack most, and she recognizes that corruption is a plague that “takes opportunities from the people.” She nostalgically affirms that she would prefer to live under the colonial administration, although declaring support for the current Prime Minister, Odinga, for the Kenyan presidency in 2013.

Juliana Resende, writer/editor for BR Press, is blogging from the International Reporting Project's reproductive health-themed trip to Kenya. This article was translated from Portuguese by Dominique Mack.


[1] preta velha: term used in Umbanda, a Brazilian religion with African origins that was common among slaves, for the spirit of an elderly black woman, known for being wise, patient, and caring.

[2] mãe-de-santo: “Mother of the Saint,” the priestess of the Brazilian Umbanda, Candomblé, and Quimbanda religions, representing tradition, knowledge, and culture.